Blueberry Gin With a Twist of Sublime

At the beginning of this month, I paid my deposit for my first ever game day. A bit of a shock to both the system and bank account, but it means that the 2012-2013 season, due to start in just four days on the Glorious Twelfth, will now definitely be my first Proper game season. Last year was the first season I’d ever been aware of, and this time round I get to actually shoot some birds – or aim at them anyway. Needless to say, I’m doing star jumps and cartwheels inside (somewhat lacking the space to do them for real, not to mention the athletic ability).

The closest I’ve got to joining a proper game shoot is walking up and down a couple of drives on a Yorkshire shoot, in lovely bright sunshine on a wonderful day out while being followed by a herd of curious cows. My eager imagination did its very best to send pheasants streaming out over the treetops, my fingers wrapped around the fantasy trigger of a make-believe shotgun. As well as my imaginary friends and I did on that day, having never seen a shoot I’m not sure it quite counts as experience.

My wishful subconscious, still with her tweed cap on, has her fingers tightly crossed, imagining the perfect shoot, picturing a group of women, guns and instructors in tow, strolling up the drives on a bright, crisp day through beautifully settled snow, and of course none of us would feel the cold, being oh-so elegantly wrapped up (layers are the key to success I’ve been told). Plenty of tweed, plenty of gin for later, and even more champagne to add it to. Beautiful shiny guns, spicy-smelling leather cartridge bags and that lovely smokey smell of gunpowder. An array of wonderful birdy targets, easy enough to shoot but challenging enough to make it fun and something to be a bit proud of, all with enough meat on to do well in an oven. In short, a day nothing short of perfect.

On the other shoulder, the pessimist in me is telling me to prepare for rain. Hail. Sleet. Sludge. Cold. It will be winter in Yorkshire after all. Fingers and toes, ears and nose, all blue with cold and about to drop off, despite wooly jumpers enough to turn a woman into an abominable snowman-lookalike. And she continues: once I eventually manage to mount a gun through the inches of thermal padding that won’t have worked, I’ll likely fire shot after shot into the sky, with the birds whipping away scot free and me simply peppering the greybrown carpet of sludge on the drive with lead instead of pheasants.

In an effort to steer reality away from the prediction of my inner pessimist and towards the romantically idealistic dreams, I have set about my preparations already. After all I am nothing if not prepared. Thermals, a cap, footwear and gloves are already on my Christmas list. I have already secured myself an instructor – none other than my old instructor, the man who taught me how to hold a gun, also known as Sir Pheasant’s farmer (if you’ve been following me long enough to understand those references, I thank yoy!) – who will accompany me on the day and attempt to teach as I shoot, how on God’s green earth I’m supposed to hit a target with a mind of its own. If I sound sceptical of my chances of success, I do not doubt his instructing ability, but simply my ability to follow his instructions. And aside from practise, practise, practise, stocking up on super-thin, super-warm thermals and something warm/piping hot to pop on my tootsies for the day and securing reliable guidance for the day is about all I feel I can prepare this far in advance, at least for the shooting side of things.

But then there is afterwards, the after-shoot. And so we come to the gin. I confess I’m not yet quite tough enough to sip neat gin – indeed, when I accidentally took a gulp of neat gin from a glass during the Jubilee celebrations, thinking it was the remained my ice-cube diluted G&T from earlier, I very nearly spat it into the face of my my laughing friend and pulled all manner of unflattering faces. But the lovely fruit gin I purchased at the mini Game Fair is another matter entirely. Sadly, I’m not sure my raspberry or damson gin will last me quite long enough to fill a hip flask come shoot-time, but never fear: I am prepared! I currently have some blueberry gin in the making (resting? Brewing? It’s all sat in a Kilner jar at any rate!) I have no idea if it will work, but following the same principles as the sloe gin I made last Autumn after the Wonderland-worthy Hunt Halloween Ball, I have introduced to each other some sugar, tasty blueberries and last but not least, some gin. On a slightly different tack however from the sloe gin given the lack of frost around in August, I decided to heat up the blueberries to release more of the juice. No doubt this means the gin will need extra straining at the end to get rid of any excess flesh or seeds that may escape the skin, but hopefully it should lead to a tasty drink. It’s looking a lovely deep purple colour already – and just a week or so in. My plan is to keep it at least until the raspberry and damson gins are finished, and fingers crossed it might last me until the shoot. The only question now is what to call a blueberry gin and champagne cocktail? As all S&CBC girls will verify, sloe gin mixed with champagne is a ‘Sloegasm’ and Foxdenton Estates have taught me that damson gin with champagne was most imaginatively and wonderfully christened ‘A Damn Shame’. I’m not sure what a raspberry champagne cocktail would be either – except beautifully pink and sparkly! Anyway, I shall set my imagination to work on those two, and any suggestions will be welcomed with open arms; I believe you can post comments below this post if you want to.

Gin aside, I’ve been broaching other culinary borders recently too. While I’m certain it would not be suitable to take along on a shoot, and therefore it is somewhat unrelated to the general topic of this thread, I am going to share with you my adventures into the world of Almost-All American Baking. Last week I made my first ever Key Lime Pie, complete with fluffy meringue! The only reason that it didn’t quite qualify as All-American Baking was the lack of graham crackers[i], as I have been assured by my lovely, most definitely All-American colleague from Tuscan, Arizona (“give her the wings to fly through harmony and she won’t bother you no more…[ii]) that a proper American pie with a biscuit-based crust simply must be made with graham crackers; nothing else will do. That said, I managed okay with good old chunky British Hobnobs, though I will admit that I found my crust a little thick. Perhaps graham crackers do give a more refined crust. If I ever get my hands on any graham crackers, I’ll test that theory.

My inadequately-British Hobnob crust prepared, I set about zesting and juicing four limes. Once prepared, the very limey filling was poured into the base and I set about making my meringue. Time for a confession: I have never successfully made meringues before. And last time I tried was so long ago that I didn’t even have an electric whisk. But it was wonderfully easy. The soft peak stage was reached in less time than it took me to fluff up the whites even a little with a hand-held whisk, and with sugar and whatnot added, the stiff peaks arrived in what felt like an instant, glossy and white as though just covered with fresh (shiny) snow.

All in all, despite the slightly thick crust, my pie was a success! The meringue was very light and fluffy, sweet and foamy, and just turning golden brown on top, and the whole pie was demolished by my brother (the birthday boy for whom this pie was made in place of a birthday cake) and me, Mum and Dad helped him just a bit. Or two bits. Each. Or maybe three.

Pie done (evidence above) and I have another family birthday this week, so we’ll see what baked goodies stem from that. Until then, I shall leave you pondering names for luxuriously decadent fruit gin cocktails. My subconscious is standing, glass in hand and doffing her tweed cap at you all saying,

– “Cheerio old chaps!” (or whatever the female equivalent is.)

[i]Graham’ is apparently pronounced ‘gram’, not ‘Graeme’, with the A drawn out to aaah, in that lovely American way that stretches it further than any A has gone before, ‘graaaaaam’.

[ii] I apologise if you don’t get the reference – a lovely song by Paul Simon called ‘Under African Skies’.


Sloe-dancing Giraffes

The same colleague who took me to the Horse Farm invited two of us to join her at the Bicester Hunt and Whaddon Chase (I think that’s right) Halloween Ball at Aynhoe Park, and I can honestly say I’ve never been to anything like it, ever. Dressed to the nines in a backless dress, and armed with cobwebs and a single white contact lens – it was Halloween after all – we drove into the courtyard to be greeted by two gargantuan hands clasped together and thrust up through the flowerbed. Walking in, penguin-dressed waiters welcomed us proffering green gin-based cocktails with dry-ice cubes in emitting a trickling stream of fog. Clutching our smoking, bubbling cocktails we entered a house surreal enough to rival Alice’s rabbit hole – and this was real. Bathed in eerie red and green light, with guests swanning around elegantly in full dresses, capes, top hats and one sexed-up Marie Antoinette outfit, the rooms were filled with a range of taxidermy the like of which I’ve never seen, and will probably never see again. A full-size giraffe on the dance floor (I seem to remember it wearing a top hat, though that may have been the cocktails taking their effect), a prowling lion by the bar, a polar bear, mounted zebra heads, more stags heads and antlers than I could count, and a penguin dancing in the elaborately turquoise ladies’ bathroom. White marble statues mingled in amongst with the animals, and with the lights and the smoke from everyone’s cocktails, a probably too-generous helping of gin and miniature food brought round on silver platters midway through the night, it was absolutely wonderful, truly a night to remember.

The next day was the next step forward in my Country Education, and my first experience of the previously mentioned sloe gin making. London-born and university-educated, a night out is something I Can Do, eyes closed and hands tied behind my back (not yet literally – but who knows what the future holds?!) But spending the night at my friend’s cottage revealed a hangover cure as yet unknown to me. A traditional, greasy and delicious fry up from a roadside diner nearby was entertaining – many locals suffering a similar fate joined us for breakfast, dressed in an array of costumes in various states of bedraggleness. But later on my friend took me out to walk her dogs, and feet shoved into my far-too-shiny wellies[i] and armed with a big Tupperware box, we went sloe picking. It was like the blackberries I picked with my Mum on a much bigger scale, with more nettles and ditches to negotiate and bigger thorns, but no cars roaring in the background. Crisp fresh Autumn air proved a much nicer hangover cure than hiding under my duvet, and returning home with 2kg of sloes as well as my hangover felt much better and more productive than returning berryless would have.

I was given instructions on turning my berries into sloe gin, and told you must be sure to only pick the berries after the first frost. Apparently if you’re impatient, you can also pick them and pop them in the freezer overnight (though ‘In the freezer overnight’ didn’t make quite as nice a title for this blog). You then prick each berry with a pin, which is best done in front of an entertaining television programme with one bowl on either side and a tea towel or apron on your lap. It’s not fast, but it’s not hard either. You pop each pierced berry into the gin with some sugar and leave it be. Some say around two months will do (and I decanted some after this time to be given to family as Christmas presents) but someone else said that a minimum of six months is needed, so I’ve left one bottle to mature for a few more months, and if I can resist temptation might even leave it ‘til next year to open. Part of me is also considering sealing up a small bottle and hiding it somewhere to be discovered in years to come, and see what difference that makes.

The freezing aspect of the ‘recipe’ makes complete sense when you think about it – and anyone who’s ever forgotten about a can of coke/beer/bottle of wine popped in the freezer to chill will know why. A berry is full of juice and when frozen that will expand, breaking the cell walls inside. So release the juice inside the berry, and it will seep out of the pinhole far more readily than out of an unfrozen berry. A new friend’s boyfriend told me that you can also lay your berries out and crush them with a rolling pin, but apparently this will lead to cloudy gin. The pinprick keeps the bits of berry inside the skin and lets the juice out, resulting in lovely deep pink clear sparkly sloe gin (or so I hope).

Spending the night at my friend’s cottage with a front door key bigger than her hand; meeting her pretty little chickens (and being sent home with some fresh eggs, smaller than a normal egg but much, much tastier); sloe picking with the dogs on a frosty morning; all of this made me want more than ever to keep discovering more about this world, even if I continue to be laughed at along the way.

[i] Note to self: must muck up my wellies a bit if I’m serious about joining this world…