Hair of the dog
The drought bleached fields stretch out in front of us as we emerge from the shade of the pine forest and the sun bounces off the pale, dry stalks and in to our eyes. The heat is almost a noise; a low, lazy throb heaving itself over and under us, lurching after us as we sweat and walk. A faded JCB stands lonesome by the path under the wide, unblinking gaze of the cloudless sky. The cab is empty and forgotten looking, the scene a little post apocalyptic and I shake off the nagging worry about global warming. Let’s just get to the end and have a drink and stop worrying about the end of the world.
I have finished the last, hot dribble of citron presse and my lips are sticking to my teeth.
I whinge loudly but so is everyone else and they walk on ahead, paying me no heed. An irrigation channel cuts through the field, buldging with clear, cold water in to which I glare crossly.
Oh come on!
I mutter at it impatiently. It gurgles past me, smugly chilled and undrinkable. Herbicide, insecticide, nematicide, termiticide, molluscicide, piscicide, avicide, rodenticide, predacide, bactericide. If I drink it, I’m not sure I’ll be home for dinner so I drag on feeling the brains in my head begin a low simmer. I spot the bush from a distance, baubled decoratively as it is with bright, dusky berries which glow ethereally in the sunshine. I pull a crushed up baguette sleeve from my pocket and beckon Jamie over to pick. The sloes land in the bottom of bag with pleasant, warm thumps and before long we have a kitten sized weight of them in the crackling paper bag.
Sloes are a small, extremely tart and dry tasting wild plum which you have probably come across at Christmas time in a glass of sticky sweetened gin. You’ve probably been given some and thought ‘oh lovely!’, made your way half way down a glass and felt the sugar coating your tongue and making swiss cheese of your teeth. You probably still have the bottle, almost full in a kitchen cupboard with a label saying 1997 on the front.
It doesn’t have to be this way though. Drop a few orange rinds in, halve the quantity of sugar and serve it cold and you have something drinkable. I could put them in whiskey I think, or maybe there’s another way to use them entirely. I lose myself in the picking for a while, turning ideas over in a my head until a man appears from the hedgerow from which he has been dipping in to the reserves of blackberries further down the lane. Chewing and popping another one in his mouth, he looks at me and says,
I return his greeting and continue to pick at the sloes. He approaches us and asks us what we are picking.
Pour le vodka…..
En hiver…in winter.
The man’s eyes light up.
he says, at once on board with our wintery beverage plans. He pops another blackberry in his mouth and explains that he comes from the Basque Country and points down the lane as if the Pyrenees are just at the bottom instead of six hunded miles to the west.
My wife makes a drink with these.
He says, flicking a finger at the sloes.
he adds, pointing at the blackberries. I brighten, sensing an impending recipe, and take a step towards him.
I ask. He nods.
Patxaran is a liquer made with a made from sloes, coffee beans and vanilla pods. It is served very cold, sometimes on ice, as a digestif in the Basque Country and in various other parts of Spain. Pronounced pat-char-AN, the word comes from the Basque word for liquor which is paitar and aran which means ‘sloe’.
Very good for the health!
Says the man, patting his stomach and nodding knowledgably. This little nugget of wisdom is applied to almost every strong alcoholic beverage I have every been given but perhaps he is right. Patxaran is said to cure ailments of the stomach, nausea, aches and pains, nerves and, of course, hangovers. If I knew how to say ‘hair of the dog’ in Basque then perhaps I’d try but instead, I nod sagely.
Thank you! Bon journée!
I call, pleased to have extracted another recipe from a stranger. Jamie murmers a quiet goodbye, caught up as he is, in the obsessive collecting of free food. The man waves and continues up the lane, disappearing in to the heat of the afternoon towards Moustieres Saint-Marie.
Ok ok gotta stop picking….
I mutter, pulling a few more sloes from the bush.
says Jamie, furtively picking another handful.
Come on! Enough!
He says, spotting my hand reaching towards another bundle of fruits. He pulls me by the arm, himself grabbing another handful which he stuffs furtively in to his pocket and we stride damply up the lane and back in to civilisation clutching our foraged goods.
Later, at the supermarket, we buy enormous quantities of alcohol with festively Gallic price tags to take home with us and flavour prodigiously with our pickings. We fill every nook and cranny of the car with cheap cremante wines, roses and huge bottles of gin and vodka but my later research shows that the Basque man omitted a crucial detail which is that the base alcohol of patxaran is anisette, an aniseed flavoured brandy or eau de vie. Consequently I have a stack of alcohol but none of the right kind. So, the sloes head to the freezer for a chilly couple of weeks which I will spend infusing vodka with anise seeds, coriander seeds and sugar in order to create my own anisette with a Russian twist.
After that, making the patxaran is easy, just drop the ingredients in and leave them for a spell in a cool place then release it on your guests with gay abandon and a cry of
1 litre of aniseed flavoured spirit- preferably with an eau de vie base but you can use sambuca or ouzo, even Pernod. Or you can try making it-see recipe below.
3 coffee beans
40g sugar -optional and dependent on your base spirit and it’s sweetness.
1 vanilla pod
blackberries- optional but the Basque man’s wife used them and I have plenty in the freezer.
Use a bottle that allows space for the litre of alcohol plus other ingredients. Drop all other ingredients in to the bottle and top up with alcohol. Seal tightly and leave for 8 months in a dark place. After 8 months, strain off the coffee, sloes and vanilla (and blackberries if you used them) which will apparently spoil the drink if left in longer, and rebottle. You can use the sloes in a jams, chocolates, sorbets and other drinks if you so wish.
Serve chilled as an digestif.
1 litre vodka
10 star anise- crushed
2 teaspoon of coriander seeds- crushed
200g sugar – adjust this depending on how sweet you like your drinks. I like my a little less sweet so am not using very much. Don’t forget it will also be counteracted by the tart sloes.
Add the spices and sugar to the vodka and shake.
Leave for 2 weeks to infuse then strain the spices off.