It’s berry time. There are so many beautiful berries this autumn; they seem to be everywhere you look. It’s a great opportunity to make something delicious to eat or drink - but don’t pick them all as birds need some for their winter food!

A serious word of warning. Never take any chances with berries as some are deadly poisonous. If you don’t recognise the berries and don’t know that they are safe, do not put them anywhere near your mouth. There are some very beautiful berries in our hedgerows that can make you seriously ill.

OK, let’s talk about sloes, elderberries, hips and haws. Blackberries are over now and those still hanging around have been marked by witches and the devil (aka toxic moulds that thrive in damper weather).

Sloes

Sloes. Berries

Sloes. © Tim Green and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn, a beautiful hedgerow plant that foams white blossom early in the spring. Sloes are small and gorgeous, dusky indigo blue plums. They are intensely sour. Best known for their use in sloe gin, you can also make them into jams and jellies.

Here's a recipe for sloe gin which will be ready by Christmas this year, but will be much better next year.

You will need

  • 450g/1lb sloes
  • 225g/8oz caster sugar
  • 1 litre/1¾ pint gin
  • a clean needle (a darning needle works very well)
  • a large sterilised jar
  • muslin
  • a bottle

What to do

  • Prick the sloes all over with the clean needle and put them into a large sterilised jar.
  • Pour in the sugar and the gin, seal tightly and shake well.
  • Store in a cool, dark cupboard and shake every other day for a week. Then shake once a week for at least two months.
  • Strain the sloe gin through muslin into a sterilised bottle.
  • Enjoy!

Elderberries

A handful of elderberries. Berries

A handful of elderberries. © Micolo J and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Autumn is definitely here when elderberries, the fruit of the elder (Sambucus nigra), start to appear.

The small black berries hang in bunches and are full of vitamin C. When cooked, they are good in hedgerow jelly (with apples, sloes, rosehips and more), pickle, fruit cordials and liqueurs, red wine and champagne, and in elderberry and apple crumble.

Only pick the ripe black berries, and pick when you’re ready to use them as they go off quickly. Make sure you’re picking elderberries as some other poisonous fruit looks very similar.

Hips and haws

Hips are the fruit of the rose (rosehips) and haws are the fruit of the hawthorn.

Rosehips have eight times the vitamin C of citrus fruit and make beautiful syrup. The double straining method used in this River Cottage recipe removes the tiny, irritant hairs found inside rosehips (the ‘itching powder’ known by children throughout the centuries).

Haws or hawthorn berries

Haws or hawthorn berries

Haws can be used in jams, gins and brandies. Small birds and thrushes love them and will defend individual shrubs in the winter as food becomes more scarce.

Enjoy the fabulous autumnal berries this year and good luck in the kitchen!