Damsons – without the distress
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