Friday, 24 December 2010

Making Sloe Gin 9 December 2010

Usually I would pick and bottle my sloes in the autumn, but this year I wasn't able to pick any sloes, blackberries or elderberries because I was busy getting married in California.  That means no elderberry cordial or blackberry jam this year but I think it is a fair trade.  Anyway my friend Fruity and I went foraging for sloes in November but the birds had gotten them all already, so I gave in and bought some from Messr. E. Bay.  Desperate times call for desperate measures. 

I've never seen sloes growing in California, so I thought I'd share the process here for anyone who hasn't heard of them.  Sloes are small, marble-sized blue-black berries in the prunella family.  They grown on blackthorn hedges.  They taste terrible raw, but if you put bottle them with gin and sugar and leave it sitting in the back of your pantry for a few months, they transform your plain old gin into a magical purple liqueur of delight and wonder.  No other drink comes close to sloe gin's toe-warming power.  I drink it neat in very small amounts.  It doesn't make you feel drunk, but your whole body warms up and you sink into a haze of midwinter cosiness, with your feet up in front of the fire and the wind whistling outside.

Sloe gin is just about the easiest home-made booze there is, especially considering the enormously satisfying returns on your labor.  First you need to go out and pick some sloe berries.  They are ripe in the late autumn.  You can pick them as soon as they are ripe, but some people say you should wait until after the first frost.  If you can't find them growing wild, you might be able to find them for sale on the interweb.  

Next, buy some gin.  Last year I used the second cheapest Sainsbury's own brand gin and it came out great.  This year we are being extra frugal so I used Sainsbury's Basics gin.  I know people like to go on about Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray and all those other expensive gins, but gin has historically been a cheap and dirty drink, so I have high hopes for my crappy Basics brand gin.  We shall see.

Now, you need to put the sloes into your container.  I used an empty two liter water bottle last year.  This year I'm using empty one liter liquor bottles rescued from the recycling.  If you want to get all fancy you can buy a demijohn.  Weigh your berries.  You'll want to use about the same amount of sugar as berries.  Prick each berry several times with a skewer or blackthorn thorn, and place it in the empty bottle.  Once all the berries are in the bottle, add the sugar, and then top it up with gin.  Basically you want to have one third berries, one third sugar, and one third gin.  You can add all sorts of spices and secret ingredients but this basic recipe will produce a very tasty sloe gin. 

Finally, when your sloe gin is all bottled up, place the bottle in a dark, cool area to chill out for a few months.  For the first week, shake the bottles up once a day.  After a few days of this, the sugar should have fully dissolved.  After that, I give the bottles a shake once a week.  The longer you leave the bottles, the better your sloe gin will taste, but it's best to leave it for at least two months before drinking.

When your sloe gin is ready to drink, strain out all the berries and bits.  Decant it into smaller bottles and give it as Christmas gifts.  There's nothing better than homemade presents, especially edible ones.  Just promise me you won't buy store-bought sloe gin.  If you want the full wild-tasting warming loveliness of sloe gin, you have to make it yourself the old-fashioned way. 

Changing the Fire Rope 6 December 2010

So, we haven't been able to light our solid fuel stove for more than three weeks because it was leaking carbon monoxide gas into the boat.  Thankfully we have a carbon monoxide detector, which is a loud beeping alarm like a smoke detector.  Carbon monoxide is invisible and odorless, and really really poisonous.  If you have any kind of solid fuel stove or gas appliance in your home, go out and get a CO monitor right now.  Get a beeping one, not one of those utterly pointless sticker things that changes colors when it detects CO--how is a mood ring going to help you when you are sleeping? 

I applied some fire cement to the collar of the stove, where the chimney meets the stove, where I could see some smoke leaking out, but that didn't solve the problem.  The next step was to replace the fire rope, which is a gasket on the main door of the stove.  It looked like it might have perished.  We got some fire rope and I set to work on a very dirty task. 

The first step was to take the door off the stove.  That was easy enough, it comes off like a Jeep door. 

Next, I had to remove the old fire rope.  It had perished a bit and was really really crusty and compacted.  I used a screwdriver to dig the old rope out of the channel in the door.  It was pretty gross.

Next, I used white spirit (rubbing alcohol in the States?) to clean the channel of any leftover bits of rope, glue and creosote.  The groove needs to be clean and dry before you can put in the new rope.  I also tried to clean the glass a bit but I didn't get very far. 

Finally, I put in the fresh rope.  You lay a bead of glue all the way around the groove, and then push the rope into the groove, making sure the ends meet and there aren't any gaps. 

I left the glue to dry for about an hour and then re-hung the door and lit the fire.  It went fine and the alarm didn't beep, until about 2:00 am.  I woke up and put the fire out.  And that was the pattern over the past three weeks--make a repair or adjustment to the stove to try to fix the leak, light the fire, think it is fine because the alarm doesn't go off, and then wake up in the middle of the night to a beeping alarm and massive, freezing disappointment. 

We went to Wales for a week with some friends, and came back on Sunday night to arctic temperatures on the boat.  We gave in and lit the fire but had to put it out in the middle of the night, again.  The little electric heater really doesn't have the power to heat the saloon and it sucks up a ton of electricity.  We decided to give in and impose on our friends.  Since Monday we have been camping out at our very dear friend Fruity's house.  I'm sure it hasn't been easy on him having two extra people in his flat, especially since we have both been sick as dogs with the flu.  We are very grateful to have friends like him. 

At the risk of jinxing it, I am very happy to say that our landlady came yesterday and lit some smoke pellets in the stove to see if she could pinpoint the leaks.  She found and plugged up some leaks and lit the stove yesterday afternoon, and so far, after eighteen hours, nothing is beeping.  Yet.  Keep  your fingers crossed.

Puppy-Sitting 2 December 2010

Some neighbors of ours on the mooring adopted a lurcher a couple of months ago.  When they got her home, they discovered she was pregnant, and shortly afterward she gave birth to eight lurcher/whippet cross puppies.  They are gorgeous black sleek little things, very wiggly and good-tempered.  All of the puppies have been adopted into loving homes now as far as I know, but back at the beginning of the month there were two female puppies left, Eliza and Sweetpea.  We were very tempted to adopt one of them as we've been discussing getting a dog for awhile, and so we puppy-sat Sweetpea for one night.  She was absolutely lovely, but we decided, very responsibly and grown-up-ly, not to adopt her because we don't know if we'll be moving back on land soon and it's so hard to find a landlord who allows dogs.  It was a tough decision because Sweetpea was very smart and affectionate and would make a terrific narrow dog for a narrow boat. 

Snow on the Canal 30 November 2010

I've been pretty busy this month with the New Sheridan Club Christmas House, looking for a new job, trying to fix our solid fuel stove, and getting ready for the festive season.  I've been photographing everything as I go so look out for a couple of new posts today. 

First up is a video I took on Tuesday 30 November, when I had a sick day and it snowed like crazy.  It looked really pretty falling into the canal but I'm not sure I really captured it.  Anyway there are some still photographs too.