There is a good crop of sloes in my neck of the woods this autumn. Sloes are, of course, the fruits of the Blackthorn that dense spiny shrub with a common name that refers to both its dark bark and its vicious spiky thorns that, in days before barbed wire, made it a prized plant among farmers for making a stock-proof boundary hedge.
The Blackthorn is a wild cherry closely related to other cherries, plums and peaches, all members of the very large rose family. Sloes, the fruits of the Blackthorn, are black in colour, are almost spherical in shape and are covered with a purple-blue waxy bloom.
Fruits are classified into many different types depending on both how they are dispersed and which parts of the plant's reproductive organs they originate from. Technically, a sloe is classified as a drupe, that is, a fleshy fruit containing a single seed encased in a stony coat.
When ripe, some drupes such as plums, peaches, mangos and cherries have a fleshy outer covering that is thick, juicy, sweet and good to eat. Sloes are a very different matter; the flesh is thin and has an unpleasant, tart, acidic and bitter taste. Folk wisdom dictates that sloes should not be harvested until after the first frosts as a night's frost counteracts the strongly astringent flavour.
Nowadays, the impact of a night's sharp frost can, of course, be replicated by putting sloes in the freezer overnight.
Sloes are an acquired taste. They can be pickled. They are also used to make fruit pie, jam, chutney and preserves. An infusion of the juice is said to be used to add 'roughness', whatever that is, to gin, vodka, port and liqueurs. Fermented sloes are also used to make wine.
The wood of the Blackthorn is strong and takes a good polish, so straight stems are traditionally used to make walking sticks and ceremonial canes. One traditional Irish walking stick - the shillelagh - was made from Blackthorn and had a large knob on top. The knob sat nicely in the palm of the hand when the stick was used for walking. And, if the need arose, the stick could be wielded as a weapon, the knob becoming a deadly, club-like cudgel.
It is claimed those of a violent nature often hollowed the knob and filled it with molten lead to add weight to the club and smoke-cured the stick up the chimney to make it extra strong for fighting.