I must confess to having a love affair with damsons. With their blue-black skin and astringent/sweet flavour they are a firm favourite. Of all the fruits available to the preserver, the damson is the maestro. Available from September to early October, they are high in pectin and acid. Damsons are unique as they make almost every type of preserve including jam, jelly, butter, cheese, sauce, syrup, chutney, pickle, vinegar and liqueurs. As soon as they are just ripe, with some give when pressed gently, they are perfect for jams and jellies.
As they ripen further, I use them to make damson cheese and chutney. When the fruit starts to fall from the trees, it’s time to make damson gin. These three preserves benefit from being left for a few months for their flavours to mature, although that can be difficult if like me you are naturally impatient to taste them.
Originating in Damascus, Syria, the Crusaders brought damsons back to Europe. Originally, they were known as damscene, later shortened to damson.They became abundant in Cumbria, Kent, Shropshire and Worcestershire, where trees were planted to supply dye for the carpet industry in Kidderminster, from the skins of the fruit.
There is an annual Damson Day in Cumbria organised by the Westmorland Damson Association and held in the Lyth Valley in April, at a time when the trees are covered in white blossom. They live for up to 50 years and are best propagated from small suckers from the roots of established trees.
The National Damson Collection has been created at Coalbrooke Arboretum, Ironbridge, to promote and protect the damson heritage. Catherine Moran is part of a group of enthusiasts in Ludlow who promote the Shropshire Prune. Catherine describes the flavour of a ripe Shropshire Prune as “spicy, rich, high notes, low notes, sweet-tart at once”. I have wild damsons as well as Merryweather and Shropshire Prune in my orchard. Merryweather is smaller than Shropshire Prune, but larger than Godshill Blue, Farleigh and Bradley’s King.
In Somerset I have frequently been surprised to see under-ripe damsons for sale in markets during late August and early September. An under-ripe damson is very sour and the skin is firm to the touch. With so many different varieties of plums, they are frequently mistaken for damsons when they are really under-sized Czar or Purple Pershore Plums. The size of plums varies considerably depending on the growing conditions.
All stone fruit jams are gently cooked in water, to soften the skins and release any pectin and acid. Their stones are difficult to remove, so leave them to drift to the surface during cooking and remove them with a slotted spoon.
Makes approx 2.25kg(5lb)
1.1kg (2lb 6oz) damsons
568ml (1pint) water
1.4kg(3lb) granulated cane sugar
1. Weigh your preserving pan and keep a note of the weight. Wash the fruit and put it into a preserving pan with the water. Place the sugar in an ovenproof bowl in a low oven at 140C/275F/Gas1.
2. Bring the pan to the boil then lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook until the fruit is tender and the contents of the pan are pulpy and thickened. This should take about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the stones.
3. Weigh the pan – there should be around 1.4kg (3lb) of damson pulp plus the weight of the pan. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Place the jars in the oven to warm. Bring the jam to a rolling boil. Stir occasionally to prevent the fruit from catching on the bottom of the pan.
4. Test for a set after 5 minutes using the flake, cold plate or thermometer test. When setting point is reached, remove the pan from the heat. Remove any scum with a metal spoon. Gently stir the jam, pour it into the warm jars and seal with new twist top lids. Leave the jars upright and undisturbed until cold. Alternatively, seal the jars with waxed discs and cellophane covers.
Often served with a cheese course. Also eaten with bread or with cold meats. My favourite way is to serve it as a petit four cut into small shapes, and dipped in melted chocolate. Fruit cheeses are traditionally potted in small, straight sided containers. When turned out, their colour is bright, deep, even and rich. They should cut cleanly and not be soft or sticky.
Makes approx 3.5lb.
1.4kg (3lb) damsons
150ml (½ pint) water
1. Cook the damsons in the water in a covered pan over a low heat until the fruit is reduced to pulp. Seive and weigh the pulp – there should be about 1.12kg ( 2 ½ lb).
2. Pour the pulp into the pan and cook it until the excess water has evaporated and the pulp is thick. Add 450g (1lb) of sugar for each 450g (1lb) of measured pulp to the pan. Dissolve the sugar.
3. Continue cooking and stir frequently until the cheese is thick. When a spoon is drawn across the bottom of the pan, look for a clean line through the cheese.
4. Pour into clean, hot ramekins or small moulds lightly greased with glycerine. Seal with waxed discs and cellophane covers.