Blackthorn is blossoming in hedgerows across the country and for tenant farmer Jonathan Curtoys, this pre-empts a good harvest. ‘I am an expert in sloe economy’, he says, ‘sloes are now the most profitable crop on the farm.’ But profiting from the blackthorn’s olive-sized fruit carries a hefty price. ‘There is no other option than to hand pick sloes – they are pretty labour intensive,’ he explains. And picking is only the first stage of the production process.
‘Yes, don’t try eating them,’ he warns, ‘they are extremely unpalatable. Not even the wildlife like them.’ Probably a good thing for Mr Curtoys whose company Sloe Motion is bringing in a healthy income from the berries: ‘Sloes are an unusual product’,he maintains, ‘But they have always been covered in alcohol ever since medieval times. I just saw a good opportunity.’
But the sloe gin, chocolate and whisky that he is producing, in no way compromises the wildlife in the hedgerows – in fact it enhances it. ‘Ethical farming is an important part of our brand,’ he explains, ‘we strive to look after the wildlife and to improve the conditions in which it lives.’ This is done using practices that are the antithesis of modern farming techniques. The hedges at Manor Farm are allowed to grow out; ?neatness and tidiness are not priorities of ours,’ Mr Curtoys explains. ?Hedge cutting can do a heck of a lot of damage.’ These days the swathes of grass flanking the hedges are full of wild flowers, not crops and the blackthorn branches out onto the verges.
It was Mr Curtoys’ father that inspired Sloe Motion. ‘My father used to make things with sloes. Everyone’s always soaked sloes in gin but my father used to melt a bar of chocolate and mix in the sloe pulp from the gin.’ According to Jonathan, sloe whisky is even nicer than sloe gin, ‘it has a really nice rounded taste.’ But Manor Farm has leant itself perfectly to sloe production. ‘The land at Manor Farm is particularly suited to growing sloes,’ Mr Curtoys says, ‘The farm owner would kill me for saying it but sloes grow well on poor land,’ There are 15 miles of hedgerow but Mr Curtoys buys in sloes from other local farms. ‘It is great; other farms have started using my farming techniques and letting their hedges grow out. There has already been a spreading of impact.’ He pays local people by the kilo for their own sloes and is already planning importing sloes from other counties to produce different variations of his products.
Sloe Motion uses the most flavourless whisky and gin so as not to interfere with the taste of the sloes. The berries are soaked in the alcohol for a couple of months, giving the sloe flavour plenty of time to seep out. Then pulp is removed and the highest quality Belgian chocolate is melted down and smothered around it. ‘Working with chocolate is a real art, it is something you have to learn,’ says Mr Curtoys. All the production takes place on the farm itself – by hand. ‘This helps to add value,’ he maintains. But he assures that making the products is all good fun.
‘The picking is definitely the hardest bit,’ he says. ‘You’re at the mercy of the weather and the thorns on the blackthorn are pretty sharp.’
As summer approaches, Mr Curtoys is praying there will be no late frost, destroying the blossoms. ‘This can be a real problem as it kills the fruit,’ he explains. Meanwhile he is using the blossoms to map out where to harvest the berries in October. Although the products are often associated with Christmas time, Mr Curtoys is finding there is demand all year and increasing amounts of delicatessens, food fairs and markets are supplying them. ‘The chocolates are great when you’re out shooting, they give you a real buzz,’ he says.
But for him it is most important that the sloe goods prove a point about the English countryside. ‘I hope we are inspiring people to think about other products out there in the British countryside,’ he says. ‘I love the countryside and I want to give it worth in people’s eyes. The good thing about our product is that it reflects the ideals of the supplier.’