A preservation of summer pulled into winter
An essay and recipe for Hawthorn gin. Words and photographs by Seán Hewitt.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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We have two events coming up in the next month involving Vittles editors. On July 14th, there will be an evening of films at the Barbican based around the themes of London Feeds Itself, with a panel discussion afterwards with Jonathan Nunn, Ruby Tandoh, Dee Woods, and Valerie Rosa. To book tickets, please do so via the Barbican’s website here.
Also, the London launch Magma Poetry’s Food Issue will be happening on July 4th at Malt Bar on Maltby Street. Vittles editors Sharanya Deepak and Rebecca May Johnson will be in conversation at the event, alongside poetry readings. You can book a place here.
Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking – a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our sixth writer for Cooking from Life is Seán Hewitt.
A preservation of summer pulled into winter
An essay and a recipe for hawthorn gin, by Seán Hewitt.
If I were able to smell of one scent for the rest of my life, it would be hawthorn blossom: sweet, slightly creamy, with an undertone of something bodily; something acrid and uncouth. I’ve spent forever looking for a perfume that captures it – that early-summer smell, undercut with unruly growth, sap and perspiration.
Many of my earliest memories involve walking the parks and canals of Northern England with my grandfather. On those walks, which were often long, he taught me the names of trees, and showed me how to make seed-heads fire off their stems. I tend to remember these times as if they were perpetually caught in that same early summer: full of the emerald of new leaves, the air thick with greenflies.
Never one to turn down free food, my grandfather also used to pull the young leaves and flowers off the hawthorns and eat them. He called this ‘bread and cheese’. The bread, I think, referred to the leaves, and the white flowers to the cheese. I must have eaten hawthorns on these walks, but I cannot recall the taste. So, on a walk with my boyfriend not too long ago, I decided to try one out. It was edible, but that’s about all I can say for it.
It tasted, predictably, of leaf.
Since those early childhood walks, I’ve always had a habit of looking into hedgerows – like one time, when I was a teenager, on a family holiday in Cornwall. It must have been October half-term because I remember the hedgerows filled with blackthorns, which were full of sloes. I had never noticed them before, always preoccupied instead with hawthorns and blackberries. But I remember the full-body wince of biting into the dark-blue skin of the sloe, the sour green flesh inside. It was the sort of sourness that made my arms shiver and the hair on my neck stand up.
By now, I’ve clocked up many miles of solo walks; for me, they come with the territory of being a writer. And I’ve always loved the idea of foraged food – not only because it’s free, but also because I get so bored of the fruits and vegetables which are stocked in every supermarket in the country (there are only so many things I can think of doing with broccoli). So, I’ve tried adding linden leaves to salads, made wild-garlic pesto, put field mushrooms in my pasta. Sometimes these things work. Other times the tastes are so strong, so bitter or wild, that I tire of them quickly.
Add some alcohol into the mix, though, and you have my attention.
When I moved to Dublin just over five years ago, I couldn’t find any sloes. I live right near Phoenix Park – the largest park in any European capital city, with 1,750 acres of grassland and woods – and I spent entire weekends walking around it trying, but failing, to find some blackthorns dotted with the fruit. What the park does have, though, are endless hillsides covered in hawthorn. Around the old military barracks, from which you can see all the way down to the seafront, there are steep inclines filled with the trees right down to the park walls. They’re thickets, really – so closely packed with hawthorn, elder and nettles that it’s hard to get through them. Only the deer seem to manage it; when I walked through these slopes, I could make out the tops of their ears flicking in the shade of the trees.
After one of these weekend walks at Phoenix Park, I got home and googled whether I could use hawthorns for anything. And that’s when I came across a recipe for hawthorn gin. I thought the aromatics of the gin, and its citrussy tang, would cut through the sugar well, and that it would balance those strong, wild flavours of foraged food.
The following weekend I enlisted a friend, and we went out hawthorn picking. What we hadn’t realised, at that point, was that the area of the park we were picking our berries in was also a popular cruising site. So, as we stood there filling up our Tupperware, we were confused by the many lone men wandering past us, looking furtive, catching our eye and then looking away. The gin, now, is wrapped up in those memories: wild and unruly in both ways, full of the tang of the uncultivated tree, the illicit uses of these spaces otherwise unused by people.
The first time I made hawthorn gin, I was sitting in bed watching Gilmore Girls. Preparing the hawthorns was a good distraction from the show, and its meandering episodes and plot lines. When the hawthorns were all done and the gin was in the jar, I put it into the cupboard, then checked on it every week, turning it, watching the colours darken. Now I’ve learned to leave it in peace, and I don’t turn it that often anymore. I just bide my time until December when, on some foggy, cold evening – when it feels like winter has begun – I take it out of the cupboard.
The main difference between sloe and hawthorn gin is that, where sloe gin is fruity and sweet and mixes well with tonic or soda, hawthorn gin is like a dark sherry, perfect for winter. It has a velvety texture, a rich smoothness. I also like that, unlike sloe gin, you can’t buy it anywhere, so hawthorn gin becomes a secret, shared thing between friends, a preservation of summer pulled into winter. That fact also means that no one can unfavourably compare my gin to the mass-produced gin they could buy for twenty euro at Lidl.
Hawthorn gin takes a bit more work than sloe gin: unlike with sloes, which have to be pricked with a needle, the haws have to be topped-and-tailed with a knife. It sounds easy, but there’s some labour in it, especially because the berries are so small and you need hundreds, if not thousands, of them. But it’s not too tedious. And you can do it easily enough while watching a film.
(Adapted from a recipe by Emma Mitchell)
Enough hawthorn berries to fill most of the way up a big (sterilised) Kilner jar
Gin (the cheapest stuff is totally fine)
Caster sugar (about 300g for 75cl of gin)
For making the hawthorn gin, you’ll also need some muslin and a small, sharp knife.
Hawthorns are best picked in October, when they’re ripe and a bright burgundy colour. Don’t bother picking any that have already started to pucker on the branch. The lucky thing is that hawthorns grow in big, fist-sized clusters, so you can fill a bag in no time.
Top and tail your hawthorns to get rid of any leaves or woody bits. Because they can be sticky, I find it’s also good to rinse them in a sieve. Once you’ve filled your jar, pour the sugar on top, then the gin, and seal it. I usually invert the jar a few times to mix it all together and help the sugar begin to dissolve.
Put the jar in a dark cupboard for about six weeks (it should be away from sunlight). You could turn the mixture around occasionally – however, I often forget to do this throughout the weeks, and it works out just fine. (In fact, because hawthorns seem to break down much more readily than sloes, I have a suspicion that leaving the jar in peace means that you end up with less sediment to filter out.)
Then, just as December comes around, filter the gin through some muslin, put it into a bottle, and you’re good to go.
I drink my gin straight, chilled (but with no ice), though perhaps you could add soda water or tonic.
Seán Hewitt is the author of All Down Darkness Wide (Jonathan Cape, 2022), and Tongues of Fire (Jonathan Cape, 2020). He won the Laurel Prize in 2020, and was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2022. He lives in Dublin..
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.