Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn bush (fairly common in northern Europe) and are little mini plums with an astringent taste. However, when used to infuse gin, the sloes impart a flavour like almonds and colour the drink ruby red. I often make sloe gin in the Autumn, ready for Christmas. Sloes appear on the blackthorn trees and bushes from late summer onwards. The best time for picking, is after the first frost – this bursts the cells inside the fruit and imparts more flavour to the gin. If there’s no frost, you can freeze sloes to get the same effect.
Sloes can be used twice in making sloe gin and in infusing dry cider afterwards, to produce a drink called slider. As the year draws in, people decant and bottle their sloe gin, but what can the leftover sloes be used for? Some, mistakenly, suggest eating them with ice cream – evidently they haven’t tried this, since even after a year in gin, a sloe still tastes bitter! I decided I’d try stuffing pheasant with used sloes and was very pleasantly surprised. This gives the bird a subtle hint of sloe gin and the juices produce a delicious gravy. Chicken or pigeon would be the next best thing.
Pheasant were probably introduced to Britain by the Romans and were definitely well established by the time of the Normans. It should be relatively easy to buy pheasant from a decent butcher during the shooting season, October 1st to February 1st and from December onwards they can be the size of a small to medium chicken.
Sloe Gin Pheasant recipe (serves 2):
1 large pheasant
3 slices of smoked streaky bacon
4 pieces of garlic (bruised and peeled)
a knob of butter
a few sprigs of rosemary, sage and thyme
sea salt and cracked black pepper
sloes from making sloe gin
red wine vinegar
Sprinkle a little salt and pepper inside the pheasant’s cavity, along with 4 pieces of garlic, a knob of butter, rosemary, sage, thyme and as many gin soaked sloes as you can fit in.
Sprinkle more salt and pepper on the bird and wrap with 3 slices of smoked streaky bacon. Pre heat the oven to 200º C and pour 1/4 pint of pheasant (or chicken) stock and a splash of red wine vinegar into the tray.
Cook the pheasant in the middle of the oven for about an hour, basting with stock every 15 minutes or so, until the bacon and skin look crisp and golden. Wrap loosely in aluminium foil and allow to rest for 20 – 30 minutes before carving. Chop the bacon and add it to your vegetables, once cooked.
Roast potatoes in goose (or other) fat, on the top shelf of the oven, while the pheasant is cooking below.
The potatoes will probably take 90 minutes, which is perfect timing for the resting bird. In the meantime, use the pheasant juices, plain flour and additional stock to make a gravy. Serve with seasonal vegetables – especially Brussels sprouts which go perfectly with pheasant and the chopped up bacon. I recommend drinking a glass or two of Palomo Cazador (Hunter Pigeon) from Ribera del Duero, to compliment the bird, followed by a glass of sloe gin with or after pudding!