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…