One morning in May I got a call from Anna (my collaborator on Gather Cook Feast) saying that in order to make Vin D'Epine I'd need to get outside quickly and pick the necessary young shoots of blackthorn, or wait another year. The result was a very pretty pink drink, which makes a really delightful springtime aperitif served in tumblers with a very little sparking water, ice and a twist of lemon or orange zest. As I write, it's the beginning of June, so depending on how far north you live, this weekend will be just about the last moment to find the requisite springy and soft new shoots of blackthorn, before the branches burst into full summer growth.
My friend Anna has a deep interest in infusing, bottling, fermenting and preserving of all kinds (the cellar of her house is a treasure trove with shelf after shelf of darkly, glistening jars). She first heard a whisper of such a drink made with red wine and brandy in France some years ago, and initially thought it was made from hawthorn. It was only after reading many blogs that she pieced together that it was actually made with young sloe shoots.
The tender, ruddy-tinted shoots of the blackthorn bush start growing in April or May, depending on the year and early in the season will have their peak flavour. Be sure to identify the bushes (using your trusted reference book and the picture below) the previous autumn when they bear the familiar glaucous-black bloomed berries or in the spring when the blackthorn is the first in the hedgerow to bear white blossom. It may be hard to tell one from another when largely bare branched (although the sharp thorns are a giveaway).
You’ll need to pick a salad spinner or colander full because the tips are light, but weigh the gleanings to get the right amount. Each tip will smell remarkably like bitter almonds. This is because the leaves, berries and flowers contain the cyanogenic glycocides associated with that tell-tale smell. But, drunk in moderation, this is not a risk – hoards of sloe gin drinkers, apricot or wild plum eaters and almond extract cake-cookers have survived with no ill effects - all these contain the same compounds.
Once you have identified the bushes (choosing some away from busy roads or nasty crop spraying), pick 10-15cm of the supple tip. We’ll use the whole shoot, including the clusters of leaves attached to it. Pick a few from each branch – not strip the whole bush – and take care to avoid the thorns, which can give a very sore puncture wound if you are unlucky. The recipe uses rosé and vodka to infuse the delicious almond/plum flavour of the shoots. The colour of the rosé will determine the final colour of the drink.
1 bottle of good quality rosé wine
175ml vodka or grappa
100g white granulated sugar
50g young blackthorn shoots (see note above), washed and spun dry
Makes nearly one litre
Combine all ingredients in a one litre jar, making sure the blackthorn shoots are fully submerged. Seal and leave somewhere out of direct sunshine for up to three weeks, until it smells strongly of almonds and plums. You can give the jar the odd gentle shake to encourage the sugar to dissolve. Strain the wine through a sieve lined with a piece of damp muslin or other fine cloth. Press down on the leaves to extract as much wine as possible. Pour the strained wine into sterilised bottles and store in the fridge, where it will keep happily for several months – but I doubt it will remain that long. Serve in small tumblers over ice with a little sparkling water and a twist of orange or lemon zest.
I hope you enjoy this lovely drink. And do let me know what you think below. x