Sloes aren’t just fabulous for flavouring gin, they also make a wonderful whiskey, wine, jelly or syrup. And it’s sloe syrup that I’ve been making today. I love it drizzled over vanilla ice cream, mixed in with my porridge or on natural yoghurt, This quick and easy sloe syrup recipe is a great way to transform these bitter and sour blackthorn berries into something rather scrumptious.
Please read my guide to safe and sustainable foraging before picking or eating anything from the wild.
How to tell a sloe from a damson
Sloes are the berries of the blackthorn bush (Prunus spinosa) a member of the rose family. They are smaller and rounder than the very similar-looking damsons and the bushes, as their name suggests have thorns. You generally don’t find many thorns but they are long and thin and are a great way to identify blackthorns. Both damsons and sloes are a dark blue-black but they usually appear lighter thanks to the pale bloom that covers them as seen below. If you rub a berry the bloom comes off. The bloom is a natural waxy coating produced by the berries that protects the skins from insects and bacteria. Damsons hang on longer stems, while sloes hung the branches more. The leaves of both sloes and damsons are oval and have serrated edges. Damsons, of course, are edible too so if you do get it wrong it’s not the end of the world.
Some say you can also confuse deadly nightshade which is poisonous with sloes but deadly nightshade has shiny blackberries without the bloom and the leaves are not serrated.
Below: Sloes growing in a Sussex hedgerow.
Where to find sloes in the UK
Sloes are the berries of the blackthorn bush, a common plant found in our hedgerows, lining many lanes in the Sussex countryside. It’s a common species that grows over most of the UK. The National Biodiversity Network’s records show the distribution of blackthorn.
When to pick sloes
Sloes are ready to pick when they are slightly soft and ideally just started falling from the bush of their own accord. The weather greatly effects when that might be. If the spring and summer have been very dry, sloes will be small and shrivelled. In particularly wet and cold years the sloes may not develop at all. When a year comes along with the perfect mix of warmth and water, autumn brings a fabulous crop of plump plentiful sloes. Usually, sloes are ripe for picking anytime from September to November.
Li'l Neill's Sloe Syrup
- 300 ml sloes
- 250 ml water
- 3 tbsps honey
- Wash the sloes
- Place all the ingredients into a pan bring to the boi
- Bring to the boil and simmer for 40 minutes
- Strain in a metal sieve
- Strain through cheesecloth
- Keep refrigerated and use within a week or freeze