I’ve occasionally mentioned Utata in this blog. I’ve talked about how the group has helped to shape the sort of photographs I shoot, and I’ve mentioned some of the projects that grow out of Utata (like the Thursday Walks, and Iron Photographer, and our bi-annual big projects).
But I haven’t said very much about the people I get to work with, and that’s a shame because those people are completely fucking brilliant and altogether charming. I was in a state of Off-the-Intertubes recently, and when I returned I discovered these two comments in the Super-Secret Utata Staff Lounge:
“I’m in the middle of making some bramble whisky. I may strain it through an old sock instead of the more conventional muslin cloth.”
“I’m making bramble whisky too, but I must be doing something wrong as my recipe doesn’t include old socks.”
First, I should probably note that I am occasionally referred to in Utata as ‘Old Sock’ (don’t ask; it’s not a long story, but it’s a story that makes almost no sense at all). Much more important is the bramble whisky. Now, I’m familiar with brambles and blackberries, and I’ve been rather intimate with various forms of whisky — but bramble whisky? Never heard of it. And I admitted as much, which sparked this conversation:
“I highly recommend bramble booze (or sloe, elderberry, rosehip, random non-deadly-nightshade hedgerow fruit). You can take the absolute dog-roughest bathtub poitín and turn it into a magical elixir for the price of a pound of sugar and a walk in the countryside.”
“Oh how I miss sloe gin. I hate regular gin, but sloe gin tastes like something from Tolkien.”
“Following last year’s damson glut, I have a ridiculously large amount of damson gin in the cupboard if anyone is desperate…”
“You can flavour gin with quinces – the little decorative ones as well as the bigger eating ones. I have no idea if they’re any more easy to find in the US. It goes a lovely pink colour and tastes of … well … to me it tastes a bit like the perfume that my grandmother used to wear but I’m not sure that helps anybody else.”
“I made some quince brandy last year. Best described as ‘interesting’.”
“I think you need to beat those quinces up a bit. I chopped and slightly cooked mine before boozing them. Nearly killed an electric chopper with them too … they were just fractionally harder than diamonds.”
From bramble whisky to sloe gin to damson gin to quince brandy. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to discover I have some moonshiners in the South Carolina branch of the family, but to my knowledge none of my kin has created anything that sounds quite so romantic or Jane Austen-ish as quince brandy.
Of course, I developed a strange, immediate desire to make my own bramble whisky, or something like it. So I asked for a recipe.
“Use a recipe depending on your fruit and liquor, specific ratios of fruit, booze sugar are needed, as Sam indicated this works best with hard fruits even if they’re supposedly soft fruits like cherries. If you want to go with folklore and hazy memories then here’s my description. Sit in a comfortable chair and listen to the radio. I always used a needle to prick them not a fork, and it’s been years, but the way I remember doing it with my Mamgu is to fill your empty bottle one third with the washed and pricked fruit, then pour fine granulated sugar on top till it comes about an inch above the fruit. Then we’d pour over the booze until the bottle was about four fifths full. The screw in the cork or the lid, and shake it violently.Put it in a cold dark pantry filled with jars of home-made chutney and marmalade. Shake it daily for a week or two, then once a week until shortly before Christmas. By then it should be all gothic and syrupy. Decant it and drink it from the tiny little glasses that you can’t buy new anywhere but little old ladies have millions so you’ll probably find some in Goodwill.”
There was some debate about the best way to prepare the fruit. One school of thought advocated a certain level of thuggery (“You do need to bash them up a bit”). Another seemed more appropriate to scaring off vampires (“Pin-pricking is too tedious – I take a sharp knife and cut a small cross into each damson”). But this response has settled me firmly in the pin-pricking school:
“Pricking them all over with a pin, while sitting in a comfy chair and listening to the radio (use BBC iplayer for this, they have a wacky dramatisation of Dracula this week) is the most important part. Your fingertips get stained an olive-ish purple and end up smelling like mossy hedgerows.”
And there you have it. Everything you’d ever want to know about preparing your own bramble whisky — from fruit-pricking instructions to the general ambience in which it should be prepared to the proper stemware in which it should be served.
And there you also have a brief introduction to the sort of people who staff Utata. Smart, funny, and infinitely helpful. That I get to work with these people makes me feel all gothic and syrupy.