Bronze bracelets, Bronze Age, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus.

Bronze bracelets, Bronze Age, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus.
Bronze bracelets, Bronze Age, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Blackthorn / Slåen















Prunus spinosa

Blackthorn grows at cliffs, embankments along the beach, cleanings on edges of woodland, thicket and fences. It is extensively planted for hedging and a cover for game birds. Some forms are grown for ornament and flowers. The fruit is called sloe, which is similar to a small damson as plum suitable for preserves, but too tart to eat. The berries are best after the first night's frost, but if they are plucked before that period, they can either be pricked by a fork or put in the freezer for a few days. Sloe is used for juice, syrups, jams, jellies, liqueur, wine and snaps.

The foliage is sometimes eaten by larvaes of  Lepidoptera (like the Brown and the Black Hairstreak butterfly). The pocket plum gall is found on the fruit, where it results in an elongated and flattened gall, devoid of a stone.


In the 1700s and 1800s:
It was a common thing in the time after harvest and after the first nigh frost to gather sloe, scold them and eat them. Infusion gave a well-tasting and healthy juice, which people drunk together with porridge instead of milk. The berries cooked with syrup or sugar and fermented on a wooden barrel was popular as a porridge. Sloe-must was made by just pouring cooked water over the berries and let the infusion ferment for 3-4 weeks. Berries crushed with the kernels gave a juice with a spicy taste. After the first night of frost the farmers' wives plucked the sloe-berries in large baskets and made a fine red juice, which was hidden in a barrel until Christmas Evening. The clear light red juice drunk in wine glass and sweetened with sugar was a popular refreshing drink during summer. It tastes a little like red wine, bad red wine was despisingly called "sloe-juice". Beer cooked with the berries makes such a good taste that it is like old red wine. From the flowers were made aqvavit, and the berries were used to clear must. They bring a pleasant taste to beer and a pretty colour, but they can also improve apple-must during the fermentation.

Jam, Cheese and Tea.
The berries preserved with sugar and cinnamon gave jam for a winter salad or a steak sauce, after they had got frost they were put with honey in jars as a jam. In Vendsyssel (North Jutland) were sloe-berries used when preserving pumpkins. If the barch was used when making cheese the cheese wouldn't rotten. The new dried leaves were a good tea, also the dried flowers mixed with strawberry-leaves.



Sloe-Wine and Liqueur

In 1580 the vasal at Kronborg let gather 2-3 barrels of sloe, from which the king's cupbearer made sloe-wine for Frederik II. The wine made by chrushed berries and kernels was very intoxicating and was only served on special occassions. During WWII a wine firm in Odense (at Funen) advertised for sloe-berries. From the fruits are also made a liqueur.
 
Sloe-Gin
In rural Britain a so-called sloe-gin is made from the sloe. It is not a true gin but an infusion of vodka, gin, or neutral spirits with the fruit to produce a liqueur. In Navarre, Spain is a popular liqueur Patxacan made with sloe. Sloe is also excellent for a herbal snaps. From fermented sloes are made wine in Germany and other central European countries. Sloe is also good as jam and if preserved with vinegar, have a similar taste to the Japanese umeboshi.


Folk Medicine:
The juice of sloe was used for stomach pain - and the flowers drawn in warm beer was used for childrens' motions. It was also used to cure tooth-ache, pain in the eyes , blood poisoning, shingles and much more. Physician Christiern Pedersen 1533: crushed leaves and barch used on on shingles. Eyedrops from the pulverized barch in wine. Physician Simon Paulli 1648: berry-juice with beer for stomach problems. Children with constipation had the flowers in warm beer. Vinegar-decoct from the green medium barch was effective against toothache. The flowers in a healing morning drink , destilled water from the flowers for bronchitis, cleaning the body etc. A tea cleansed the blood and was laxative. The barch was used against malaria, the berries gave a healing drink against fevers, and mixed with cherries against diarrhoea. A milk decoct from flowers for a drink or a bath to remove freckles. The fruit juice for sores in the mouth or to rub upon swellings and against nosebleed. In 1772 flowers and fruit were entered into the pharmacopoeia.

Dye:
Unripe berries dye black, the juice of the ripe berries dye pale brown, while the dried berries make wool red. The barch gives with alun a red dye, unripe berries with iron vitriol give a dye like black ink. The unripe berries and the barch were used in tanning.



Other Use:
Blackthorn was recommended for hedges around gardens and fields, in Denmark this is much used especially at Funen. Many loads of cut blackthorn from the hedges were brought home as a fuel for the baking ovens. Before or in the killing season at the farms when sausages were made, the children gathered thorns from sloe, which in the evening were scraped clean , dried upon the oven and eventually burnt in the tips and then used as sausage-sticks; this was a tradition in most parts of the country  (DK) - and the sausage sticks were sold at the market. Boys also used the thorns as arrow-heads. From the wood were made music instruments, it was commonly used in turner-works and for mathematical instruments. From the tough wood were made walking sticks, hammer - and axen handles. During WWII gramophone needles were made from sloe thorns, they gave lesser needle-noise and lesser wear on the records than metal needles.

Blackthorn makes and excellent fire wood that burns slowly with a good heat and little smoke.

Straight blackthorn stems have traditionally been made into walking sticks or clubs (known in Ireland as a shillelagh). In the British Army, blackthorn sticks are carried by commissioned officers of the Royal Irish Regiment; the tradition also occurs in Irish regiments in some Commonwealth countries.

Ink: 
Shlomo yitzhaki, a Talmudist commentator of the High Middle Ages,  writes that the sap (or gum) of P. spinosa (or what he refers to as the prunellier) was used as an ingredient in the making of some inks used for manuscripts.

Fishing: 
A "sloe-thorn worm" used as fishing bait is mentioned in the 15th century work, The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle, by Juliana Berners.The expression "sloe-eyed" for a person with dark eyes comes from the fruit, and is first attested in A.J.Wilson's novel Vashti.

Making snaps:
Put sloe berries in a glass or bottle with double amount alcohol. Filtration after 2-3 months. There is now a pretty dark red to violet essence, which can be thinned as you like. The berries can be used again together with the crushed stones in a new amount of alcohol to draw for a month or two, which gives a drink with a taste of almond. A sloe snaps gets better and better when stored. It is excellent for herring and cheese. Added honey makes it a snaps for desserts.








text and photo: grethe bachmann

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