Damsons – with­out the dis­tress

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Damsons are a very English fruit. Even the name, de­rived from Da­m­as­cus, has a whiff of cru­sades and damsels in dis­tress, al­though it is likely that the diminu­tive plums ar­rived on th­ese shores with the Ro­mans, not Richard the Lion­heart.

Un­til the Sec­ond World War, dam­son jam and dense, sweet dam­son cheese were din­nertable sta­ples in Bri­tish house­holds and the fruit was grown com­mer­cially in the Mid­lands and North West, both for culi­nary pur­poses and for dye – the plums pro­duce a splen­did stain, as you will find if you spill some of the juices.

But damsons have fallen out of favour re­cently, rel­e­gated largely to a gar­dener’s fruit, al­though a few plan­ta­tions sur­vive. Around Lud­low the lo­cals are fiercely loyal to the Shrop­shire prune, a par­tic­u­larly small ex­am­ple of the dam­son, barely larger than a good-size grape. In the Lyth Val­ley, in a part of Cum­bria once called West­mor­land, they grow a close rel­a­tive of the Shrop­shire prune but, ac­cord­ing to the West­mor­land Dam­son As­so­ci­a­tion web­site, “im­proved by the unique con­di­tions”. Would the peo­ple of Shrop­shire agree? Jam pans at dawn, I think.

Happily, there seems to be a re­newed in­ter­est in damsons all over the coun­try, along with other fine Bri­tish pro­duce such as cob­nuts and sam­phire. Even the supermarkets are catch­ing on. Booths, the North­ern chain, is stock­ing damsons as part of its sup­port of Slow Food’s For­got­ten Foods pro­gramme, which aims to pro­tect re­gional foods threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion.

And damsons are worth sav­ing, with a taste that is pos­i­tively swash­buck­ling. Not raw, mind you, when they are mouthdry­ingly sour. Their mo­ment of glory comes when they are cooked, the heat draw­ing the juice out of the dusky skins and with it the most ex­tra­or­di­nary depth of flavour.

Damsons are to plums what port is to red wine, richer, darker, stronger – and not for ev­ery­one. Some­times, even for me, they can be just too strongly flavoured, al­most headache-in­duc­ingly in­tense. Tem­per the pow­er­ful plum­mi­ness by mix­ing them in a pud, with gen­er­ous amounts of crum­ble, or use them to stud a clafoutis or cut the sweet­ness of ice cream. The purée – what restau­rants used to call a coulis, un­til (al­leluia) English terms such as sauce came back into fash­ion – is gor­geous with hazel­nut cake or meringues.

Pre­par­ing them is, I ad­mit, a bit of a faff. They are small, so ston­ing them is more work per pound than with larger plums. As with all stone fruit, when halv­ing them find the crease in the skin and cut be­tween the cheeks and all around, then twist apart. This way the stone will be ly­ing flat in one half, eas­ier to lever out. With damsons, how­ever, find­ing the crease can be tricky.

Then the fruit are what hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ists call “cling­stone” – the flesh ad­heres bullishly, so you will lose some when ex­tract­ing the pit. A small, sharp knife will help slice it out.

The al­ter­na­tive is to cook the fruit whole. They quickly col­lapse to a purée, and some recipes prom­ise that the stones will rise to the top, to be eas­ily scooped off. I find this un­re­li­able. Even for jam, when the vig­or­ous boil­ing makes it some­what more ef­fi­cient as a method, there are likely to be a few tooth-break­ers left in the mix. Which leaves you with siev­ing the purée — te­dious for large quan­ti­ties, al­though a friend tells me that an elec­tric sieve at­tach­ment for a table­top mixer makes short work of it.

Never mind. The re­wards are very fine, and there are some com­pen­sat­ingly sim­ple recipes be­low. Damsons are worth a lit­tle (very short-lived) dis­tress.

Rich pick­ings: dam­son and hazel­nut pud­ding. Try to re­move as many stones as pos­si­ble

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