A FAIR DAM­SON IS A MOST WEL­COME SIGHT

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Front Page -

The area I live in used to be part of a fruit farm that went right down to the sea, so as I hurry around my con­sti­tu­tional cir­cuit ev­ery morn­ing, past the al­lot­ments, across the golf course to the beach, there are an­cient fruit trees flow­er­ing and fruit­ing, with in­ter­est­ing crosses and sports to ex­am­ine, that give me an ex­cuse to stop and catch my breath. The main crop seems to be black­thorn ( Prunus spinosa), a space in­vader that loves the sea­side, cov­ered this year with sloes only on trees that face west (the east­side catches the early morn­ing sun that dis­pels spring frosts too quickly and de­stroys the ear­li­est off-white fluffy blos­som). Th­ese tiny rock-hard fruits with their blue-black bloom will stay on the boughs un­til the frosts, but can be picked with the cold spell repli­cated in the freezer, then steeped in gin and sugar with a twist of lemon peel in time for Christ­mas. The strained fruit pulp can be set in slabs of choco­late for post-fes­tiv­ity den­tal kamikaze. An­ces­tor of the cul­ti­vated plum, black­thorn makes an ef­fi­cient na­tive hedge (avail­able from hed­genurs­ery. co.uk), its spiny branches will keep out all crea­tures great and small, while at­tract­ing many oth­ers, but its pe­riph­eries need to be reg­u­larly mown to keep suck­ers at bay. One size up is the cherry plum ( Prunus cerasifera) and the French mirabelle ( Prunus in­si­ti­tia). With ei­ther red or yel­low cherry-sized fruits, the trees have good dis­ease re­sis­tance and make a pretty for­ag­ing hedge with early nec­tar sources for in­sects. Va­ri­eties (from or­angepip­pin­trees. co.uk) in­clud­ing ‘Ruby’, ‘Golden sphere’ and ‘Mirabelle de Nancy’ are de­li­cious in jams, and make a mean plum brandy. Use them in a rich bat­ter, dusted with vanilla sugar for a Clafoutis aux Mirabelles or in a frangi­pane tart. To com­pli­cate the is­sue, Ripe for poach­ing: clock­wise from top, fruit pick­ings at Francine’s own ta­ble and, inset, her home­made plum jam; French plum ‘Mirabelle de Nancy’, black­thorn, plum dam­son ‘Far­leigh’ black and green bul­lace are also forms of Prunus in­si­ti­tia. The English black bul­lace (avail­able from keep­er­snurs­ery.co.uk) and the white bul­lace with in fact, yel­low­ish fruit, and rare va­ri­eties like the ‘Es­sex’ and ‘Royal’ with larger sweeter fruits, are dis­tin­guished from their other close rel­a­tives by their rounder fruit and smoother stones. If you’d like to try a rare wild bul­lace liqueur, Colin and Phyl­lis Hingston, from Worces­ter­shire, make one that can oc­ca­sion­ally be bought on­line from demi­john. co.uk around the Christ­mas pe­riod, af­ter a good har­vest. The most wel­comed fruit on my walk is the dam­son, also part of the in­si­ti­tia fam­ily. Orig­i­nally from Da­m­as­cus, and in­tro­duced by the Ro­mans, their stones have been found in an­cient digs. Strangely sweet and sharp at the same time, the fruits are oval. Many va­ri­eties are only dis­tin­guish­able from their stones, but the most com­monly grown va­ri­eties are the al­most black-fruited ‘Far­leigh’, orig­i­nally found grow­ing wild here in Kent; the al­most plum-sized ‘Mer­ry­weather’ with large hy­acinth-blue coloured damsons that are good to eat raw (from black­moor.co.uk), and the ‘West­more­land’, an an­cient va­ri­ety that has a web­site (lyth­damsons.org.uk), and a dam­son day in spring. Damsons are dis­ease free and will grow in al­most any soil, apart from pure peat or heavy clay. They don’t thrive in shade, com­pe­ti­tion re­sults in leggy trees. The best way to prop­a­gate them is by dig­ging up and re­plant­ing suck­ers that will usu­ally fruit in seven years. Mine (prob­a­bly from a ‘Mer­ry­weather’ cross) are ready to eat now. Best picked with a wil­low fruit picker from cro­cus.co.uk, most go straight into the freezer for au­tum­nal oat­meal, al­mond and brown sugar crum­bles, but many get eaten straight away, and there’s plenty of com­pe­ti­tion from birds, wasps and my hens, who sit and wait un­der the tree, as a diver­sion dur­ing their an­nual feather moult. When cook­ing damsons, the stones pop up to the sur­face and can be scooped out with a slot­ted spoon. Honey-flavoured with a touch of tart­ness and de­scribed by epi­curean Ed­ward Bun­yon as con­tain­ing “a flavour un­equalled with suf­fi­cient juice for re­fresh­ment, but not for a bath”, the shop-bought Green­gage is of­ten a woolly dis­ap­point­ment. Grow your own, full size and ready to fruit ‘Reine-Claude Verte’ from bar­cham.co.uk, or ‘Cam­bridge Gage’ and ‘Coe’s Golden Drop’ on mod­er­ately vig­or­ous St Julien root­stock from the or­ganic nurs­ery — wal­cot­nurs­ery.co.uk. Eat as many gages as you can, straight from the tree, and then, when stuffed, pick the rest to poach then freeze. Add lemon juice when jam­ming, and serve with toasted brioche dusted with cin­na­mon sugar, or add to Les­ley Wa­ters’s knicker­bocker glory recipe sim­mered in but­ter and cin­na­mon, served with vanilla ice cream and topped with toasted al­monds and oats, and grated choco­late. Just what I need as a restora­tive af­ter my early morn­ing walk. For more gar­den­ing tips and ad­vice, visit

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