They’ve had to wait 12 months, but the sizzling summer weather has really come to fruition for Raisthorpe Fine Foods this month with the ultimate in sloe food ““ an unexpected crop of sloe berries.

Staff at the award-winning Hockney Country drinks company have discovered a fruitful supply of sloes in the hedgerows on the 1,500 acre estate, which they began picking after the first frost in October.

While last year’s cold spring spelled a ‘go sloe’ season for the blackthorn berries, this autumn the hedgerows around the estate ““ some of which are more than 60 years old ““ have provided a copious crop for the company’s Sloe Gin, Sherry and award-winning Sloe Port.

“We need at least 2 tonnes of sloes to produce our liqueurs and last year the bad spring and summer put paid to this because it froze the young buds ““ it was our worst year to date for sloes,” says Raisthorpe’s Julia Medforth. “But this season looks set to be a much better harvest!”

“In 2000, we also planted some 20 miles of new hedgerow including blackthorn and this year is the first year they have been plump and juicy too,” adds Julia.

The sloe harvest is an annual tradition at the Malton based company, and the tricky job ““ which sees staff carefully picking their way through the notoriously prickly branches in freezing weather ““ can take two to three weeks in total, with the harvested sloes supplemented by donations from local gardeners and landowners.

“It’s great to get out of the factory to go sloe picking but it can be a difficult job,” says Julia. “Whoever picks the most at the end of the day traditionally wins a warming sip of Sloe Gin!”

Raisthorpe Manor, which was the first company in the UK to produce a Sloe Port ““ a gold award winner in the national Sloe Gin awards, prides itself on sourcing the majority of its fruit from fields and hedgerows in and around the estate. The trees under which the sloes grow, is the exact spot depicted by painter David Hockney in one of his Yorkshire landscapes.

Julia’s Sloe Picking Tips

What do they look like? The blackthorn bush has thorny dark skin and bark and oval leaves, and is covered in white flowers in spring. The hard, blue-black fruits look like small damsons or blueberries and have a coating of pale blue powder that rubs off. The shrub is found in hedges, scrubland and verges all over Britain (and due to its prickles has commonly been used for cattle fences!).

When to pick? Between September and November, but they are best after the first frost because the cold snap helps sweeten the fruit. Warning: don’t try to eat them ““ they are very bitter!

What to wear? Fingerless gloves are perfect for warming cold hands and offering protection from sharp thorns without making it too difficult to pick. But don’t wear your Sunday best as sloe juice is indelible and you’ll never get the stains out!

What to do with them? Pick out any damaged fruit or wrinkled specimens and freeze on the day (they’ll keep for a few months), or steep in gin or brandy. Use the alcohol-soaked fruit in desserts or jellies for lamb and duck.

Sloe Stats and Facts

* In France sloe gin is called ‘épine’ and in Italy ‘bargnolino ‘.
* The stones have been discovered in prehistoric houses where it’s thought they were used to dye fabric.
* Blackthorn wood has traditionally been used to make walking sticks.
* The blossom is edible and can be crystallised as a cake decoration.
* Sloes were used in ancient medicine to treat skin diseases and rheumatic complaints, as well as being used as a mouthwash and even as an appetite stimulator! In folk mythology, people were advised to eat three flower stalks, three times in succession to ward off fever and gout.