MAY BLOSSOM! (from TALES FROM A COUNTRY BOY – A Treasury of Norfolk)

By Published On: April 19, 2024Comments Off on MAY BLOSSOM! (from TALES FROM A COUNTRY BOY – A Treasury of Norfolk)

In the early 1970s, one feature of Mousehold Common, on the north-eastern outskirts of Norwich, was a bespectacled, curly-haired young man, careering along footpaths and bridleways on a yellow racing bicycle, morning and evening. And in late spring, there were times when his lungs suddenly filled with the most heavenly fragrance. I felt harmlessly intoxicated by it, and was left wondering from whence it had emanated. 

Many years later, in 1983, I bought a small cottage on the outskirts of the village of Frettenham, a few miles north of the city. It was surrounded by a high hedge, and the following May, I found myself reliving those earlier days on the yellow racing bicycle. I was learning a few things about country life; it was April when much of the hedging burst into great clusters of white flowers, blackthorn, on leafless stems. There was little fragrance, and in the autumn, I failed to associate the blue-black fruit that was crushed underfoot, with the earlier blossom. Nor did I realise that sloes, as they are called, the fruit of the blackthorn, are famed for their use in the production of sloe gin. But I have learnt a thing or two over the years.

“Wow! Just one stem is more than enough”, said Wendy, stripping the gleaming blue-black damson-like fruit from the proffered cutting, removed from the hedge with our trusty secateurs. For the first year or two in my cottage, the small plummy fruit that lay on the rear lawn, was trodden on, squashed, and passed largely unnoticed. Neighbours Bob and Lynn invited me round for dinner followed by sloe gin, my first Christmas here. Great neighbours, and a great liqueur. That was forty years ago. And now, we too have gone into production of the heavenly nectar. The hedge is weighed down with thickly stacked fruit, the like of which I have not seen before. We could start a factory. “Looking forward to Christmas”, says Wendy with a wide smile.

All you need, in addition to 450gm of sloes, is 225gm of castor sugar, and a large sterilised jar. And gin! Wash the sloes and freeze them. Place the frozen sloes in the jar, and pour the gin, and then the sugar, onto them. They will thaw and the skins will split. Seal the jar, and shake vigorously. In fact, shake it every other day for a week, and once a week for 2 months. Then enjoy the dark red liqueur, perhaps poured over ice (‘on the rocks’), or drizzled over ice-cream. I do enjoy country life – and Christmas!

I digress. If the blossom of the blackthorn was spectacular, a month later it was surpassed by great snowdrift-like swathes of cream-coloured flowers, covering other sections of the hedges.

Whereas the blackthorn was on otherwise naked branches, this display of blossom was on leafy stems. And the fragrance was intoxicating, sweet, fresh and spring-like. Some describe it as vanilla, almond, or simply spicy. I would mooch around the garden, and find the temptation to thrust my face into clusters of the blossom, and inhale deeply, simply irresistible. I suspect that Mrs. Northby, my mother’s char lady when I was a toddler, however, would have taken several steps back. Country folklore may consider that hawthorn hedges are the homes of fairies, but her overwhelming sentiment was that May blossom was bad luck. Don’t touch it. Don’t bring it into your home. Stay away.

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