An underappreciated autumnal fruit
The sight of damson trees with branches drooping heavily under the weight of closely grouped purple fruit is a classic autumnal scene, but for all that they remain an underappreciated fruit by many. Fortunately, Slow Food UK are taking steps to ensure this native English fruit has a bounteous future. Lyth Valley damsons—also known as Westmorland, Witherslack and Kendal damsons—are a listed Ark of Taste product, ensuring the ongoing revival of once-neglected orchards and bringing these aromatic fruits back to the attention of chefs and others with a love of great ingredients.
Though technically a sub-species of plum, damsons are more of a cooking fruit than an eating one—unless you happen to know the location of a particularly sweet tree or have a liking for mouth puckering tartness. However, once cooked damsons will give you some of the loveliest flavours of the autumn.
“One of the ways that I like to use damsons is in a frangipane tart,” says Borough Market demonstration chef Tony Rodd. “It is a bit of a twist on the bakewell, by adding some damsons or a damson jam to the tart. Inside the sweet pastry case you still have the frangipane almond element, but I place some damsons into the frangipane mix before baking. When you do this, you can see the jewel-like fruit on the top of the tart and you get that lovely colour spreading out into the frangipane, which I think is absolutely beautiful.” Another approach is to cook the fruit first “until you get a lovely thick gooey paste and spoon a layer of this on to the bottom of the pastry case, with the frangipane layer over the top.”
A combination made in heaven
Classically damsons are used in jelly-making. “I personally think this goes wonderfully well with almost any kind of cheese. For me it is a taste combination made in heaven.”
The chef says you don’t need to overcomplicate things: there is a very easy way to make a simple damson jelly that will last in the fridge for several weeks. The easiest way to do this is to make it almost like a jam. “I promise it will set, because of the citric acid that the recipe calls for. Wash the damsons—I personally like to take the stones out first, but you don’t have to do so at this stage—then pop them into a saucepan and pour in just enough water to cover the fruit.”
Add an equal amount of caster sugar to the weight of water that you have used, then squeeze in some lemon juice. “This provides the set without using a special sugar which has had pectin added.” For one kilo of damsons, you will need the juice of about one lemon—though there is a bit of leeway for personal taste at this point in the recipe. Tony personally likes his jelly quite tart, so he uses a bit more lemon and less sugar. You could go in the other direction if you like, but he cautions not to stint too much on the lemon juice or the jelly won’t set.
Wonderful, underrated fruit
“Bring it to a boil, dissolving the sugar, then reduce it to a lively simmer and cook until the damsons starts to break down in to the liquid. This should take roughly 30 to 40 minutes. Pass it through the strainer and you have your jelly in liquid form. Pour it into a sterilised jar and leave it to set. I definitely suggest trying this if you haven’t before. It is a great way to use this wonderful, underrated fruit, and trying your own damson jelly with some good cheese and crackers will be an experience you will not forget.”