Christmas at the home of Claire and Joff Curtoys is always gin-filled and jolly. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
The scales have tipped in favour of a better life work balance for Claire and Joff Curtoys thanks to their decision to downsize to a pretty cottage, near Malton. The journey to work takes less than a minute door-to-door now they’ve created a shortcut through their back garden.
“We lived in a big Georgian-style house before but we decided to rent this. The location couldn’t be better and it’s a lot warmer than our old home,” says Claire.
The proximity of their artisan drink and food business, Sloemotion, is especially important at this time of year.
The Curtoys and their team, who have just won the Welcome to Yorkshire White Rose award for best producer and maker 2016, are flat out fulfilling orders for their sloe gin, whisky, jams, chutneys and truffles. There is little time for anything else, though Claire has managed to decorate the cottage for Christmas thanks to a late-night trimming up session.
The tree is from Paleys in Malton and is dressed in traditional reds and greens, while a windowsill provides a make-shift “stable” for the nativity figures. Natural greenery plays a big part in the scheme. Claire has created a mini tree from an off-cut that she anchored in a plant pot filled with sand. “The shop was throwing it out so I asked if I could have it,” she says. There’s a garland on the bookcase, pine cones adorn table tops and fragrant cyclamens with winter white petals add height.
Holly is also a key feature and there are sprigs on many of the picture frames.
“It was a family tradition when I was growing up. My mother always put some holly above the pictures and so I have carried that on,” says Claire.
It wasn’t an inconsiderable job as the house is filled with paintings, prints and posters that hang on walls freshly painted in Farrow and Ball’s Pavilion grey.
Joff (short for Jonathan), Claire and their children, Harry, 17, and Issy, 14, are all art lovers.
David Hockney is a firm favourite. There are lots of his prints around the house, including his depictions of the Yorkshire Wolds.
One wall in the sitting room is covered with alphabet prints taken from a 1897 book by the artist, Sir William Nicholson, father of painter Ben Nicholson.
“We love collecting art and if I had huge amounts of money that’s what I’d spend it on,” says Joff.
In the kitchen, there’s a poster for an open event at the home of York-based printmakers Mark Hearld and Emily Sutton.
“I was lucky enough to go. I love their work and it would be wonderful to have an original but at the moment I have lots of postcards,” says Claire, who enjoys collecting little treasures from antique and vintage shops in The Shambles in Malton
Many of them are displayed on her plate rack hung in the kitchen, which is the heart of the home and where Claire tests new recipes for Sloemotion. Her Christmas special this year is shimmering sloe gin jelly shots topped with edible gold glitter and served in vintage glasses. There will, of course, be plenty of sloe gin on offer too. Unlike the clear, dry drink, the sloe variety is a warm red liqueur made from the berries that grow on blackthorn hedges.
The business began after ecologist Joff swapped his job as an agricultural policy adviser for the RSPB to set up an environmentally and economically sustainable farm with a friend, Richard Brown. Part of the conservation plan was to stop cutting the blackthorn hedgerows, which provides a better habitat for wildlife. Yellowhammer, bullfinch and other birds nest in its branches and fledglings are protected from predators by the thorns.
“We ended up with a lot of sloes, which birds don’t like much because the berries are very bitter and there’s a big stone in the middle. We decided to harvest them and make sloe gin, which is traditionally what country folk used to do with them,” says Joff.
The sloes are steeped in sugar and their own recipe gin, made from hedgerow botanicals. After three to four months, the mixture is strained to provide a liqueur for sipping.
“It’s often served with dessert and is synonymous with country pursuits because it is very warming, but it’s also very good in cocktails,” says Joff.
He and Claire took on sole responsibility for Sloemotion ten years ago and, helped by Joff’s brother, Julian, they have built the business.
The gin-soaked sloes are now upcycled to make chocolate truffles and chutney. They have also diversified into making blackberry whisky and blackberry ketchup and, along with their online store, they now supply farm shops and delis nationwide along with branches of Waitrose and Booths.
The orders have come in thick and fast but they plan a rest over Christmas when they will “see family and eat and drink far too much”.
On the big day, they’ll celebrate with Sloe Royales. “That’s sloe gin and prosecco and it’s a delicious but punchy little number so you can’t have too many or you might forget to put the turkey in,” says Joff.
**Claire’s Shimmering Sloe Gin Jelly Shots
“These are a great alternative to a pudding- and will always get a party going with a sparkle,” says Claire.
1.1 ltr mixed cranberry juice and clear apple juice
12 sheets gelatine
4 tbsp Sloemotion Sloe Gin
Edible gold or silver glitter – available from most supermarkets or cake-making specialists.
Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water for five minutes. Meanwhile, mix the sloe gin and the cranberry juice and lemon juice in a large jug, and heat about a quarter of this liquid gently in a small pan.
Squeeze the water out of the gelatine leaves and stir them into the warm liquid.
When the leaves have completely dissolved, stir the warm liquid into the rest of the gin mixture and sprinkle the edible glitter through the liquid. Pour into pretty glasses, each about 100ml – and leave to cool, then refrigerate for at least three hours.