I go to a lot of business events and meetings that are arranged around food and drink: breakfast meetings, a catch-up over coffee, networking lunches, etc. Most of the professionals I know seem to prefer to get their business over during work hours, but there are also a few events that take place in the evening and are more social than anything else.
Of course, being social is an important part of running your own company – it’s frequently said that “people do business with people” – so these can’t be ignored, even if there’s little expectation of making a sale, closing a contract or meeting a new client.
Last week, I attended one such event, where the very reasonable ticket price always entitles you to two drinks at the bar and a generous buffet. I hadn’t read the small print, though, as I didn’t realise that this time it also included a gin tasting.
I don’t think this blog is the place to review the gins we sampled, although I will say they were pretty damn fine. And not only were the drinks themselves good, but so was the informative patter that accompanied the tasting, although, sadly, no one quoted Eliza Doolittle.
I was intrigued to learn about the 1751 Gin Act, which imposed a high licence fee for gin producers, as well as setting a minimum still size for production, thereby essentially stopping small batch distilling. Perhaps the reason gin seemed to suddenly become fashionable a few years ago was because the creators of Sipsmith gin campaigned for a change in the law. This finally came about in 2008, and now, apparently, there are almost 600 gin distillers in the UK.
We ended the tasting session with a sloe gin, which triggered memories of the scores of bottle of cheap Larios gin I brought back from Spain to the UK over the years, and the many autumn walks down by the Severn Estuary in search of sloes.
Here, then is a prose poem, written some twenty years ago and never quite polished into completion. (The photo that follows it is probably not almond blossom, but it’s a good enough substitute.)
My mother makes sloe gin. Each year, as summer draws to a close, we go down to the estuary’s edge, where fields spread back from mud, wide and flat and green. There, we inspect the blackthorn’s promised harvest, gazing at the trees’ apparent barrenness until, gradually, the round green fruit take form among the leaves.
While others tear their hands on brambles, blood and juice mingling in purple stains, we watch, jealously, for the tiny globes to ripen. After the first frost, we gather them, firm and full, touched with a bloom of autumn.
Once, tempted by their plum-like looks, I tasted one. Wiser now, I drop them straight into the bag. These are not delicate berries; they do not crush, but if they do, I will not lick my fingers. We carry them home and wash them in the kitchen sink; leaves, twigs and ants are tipped out on the grass.
Now, tradition says, each individual fruit should be pierced with a silver fork, but we make do with a potato masher, breaking frost-softened skins to release sour flesh and purple juices.
We mix the sloes with sugar, unblanched almonds and cheap gin, then put them in a giant whisky bottle saved from student days. Daily, for a week, we shake the mixture, watching as sugar dissolves and the liquid darkens to deep crimson.
For three months the bottle sits in a dark cupboard, undisturbed. Then, just after Christmas, it is lifted out, and the wine-red liquid poured through coffee filters into bottles; a ruby waterfall whose clarity belies its bitter taste. It will be ready by next Christmas, mellowed and matured.
The fruit, now soft and swollen, serves again: steeped in supermarket sherry, in one brief month the brew is ready to be drunk. No Spanish fino this, though the pale rosy-gold hints at southern sunshine. Another sherry pressing and, at last, the fruit can be discarded. Bruised flesh and flaking skin, stones and bitter almonds are all tossed onto the compost heap, finally allowed to rest and rot.
One year, a tipsy, gin-soaked almond, buried, warm and secure, under layers of vegetable peelings, crumpled paper, tea leaves and coffee grounds, put forth a tiny shoot into the rotting dark. When the compost was dug out to line the trench for the french beans, a baby tree was found, almond identifiable among its roots. We planted it in a sheltered corner by the fence.
This spring it blossomed for the first time, flowers pink, like the juice of sloes in autumn.