Here’s a trio of preserves that champion one of my favourite sorts of food – free stuff!
Damsons grow wild in the hedgerows and along the canal banks and lanes of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, and the only cost is your time to pick them. They are tart, wild plums, about the size and shape of a large grape, with a soft, hazy-blue bloom to the skin. NB The size/shape is key to identifying true damsons – if the fruit is round and apple-shaped, it is a different wild plum known as a bullace.
I had an especially impressive haul of damsons this year, from three difference sources, so aside from the obligatory Damson Gin, I had enough to make batches of the above preserves for the first time, the recipes for which I have had bookmarked for years. Whatever your toothsome preference, there should be something for everyone here.
If you’re unable to find damsons, then all of these recipes will work with any kind of small, tart plums.
First up is the oldest of the three recipes, found in a household manuscript book at the Wellcome Library. Sadly for those of us interested in people as much as recipes, it is anonymous, and dates from around 1685. It caught my eye because of the slightly unusual method it employs. Usually, the vigorous boiling in the making of damson jam renders the delicate fruit into a pulp, but the method in this recipe is strikingly similar to that employed by the modern queen of jam-making, la fée des confitures, Christine Ferber. Sugar is used to both draw out the juices of the fruit, and to infuse the delicate flesh, so that it can all the better withstand the cooking process. The result is beautifully whole damsons in a richly flavoured syrup.
You can make any quantity you like, by scaling up the recipe to suit the quantity of fruit you have. I have altered the recipe slightly, based on my experience of working with Madam Ferber’s recipes.
1lb granulated sugar
- Remove the stalks and with a sharp knife, cut the skin of the damsons around “in the crease” as the recipe puts it.
- Sprinkle a layer of sugar in a pan and set the damsons into the sugar, to draw out the juice.
- Sprinkle the remainder of sugar over the top.
- Pour over the water.
- Cover and leave overnight.
- Next day, heat very gently until the sugar has melted.
- Lift the fruit out of the syrup and bring it to a boil.
- Return the fruit to the now hot syrup and allow to steep overnight.
- On Day 3, lift the fruit out of the syrup and bring it to a boil again.
- Return the fruit and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Transfer to warmed pots and seal while hot.
Miss Milward’s Pickled Damsons
Alison Uttley’s fictionalised autobiographical book The Country Child was one of my favourites growing up, and it remains so to this day. The book details her childhood growing up on a Derbyshire farm in the late nineteenth century – I highly recommend it.
Ms Uttley came across her mother’s recipe book whilst researching Country Hoard, and in response to encouragement from her published, produced Recipes from an Old Farmhouse in 1966. This recipe was made in vast quantities, to ensure there was a ready supply for the many mouths fed at the farm.
Almost equally sweet and sharp, they are equally good served alongside cold meats and cheeses, as spooned over ice cream.
You can halve or even quarter this recipe if liked.
1.8kg white, granulated sugar
2 x 5cm cinnamon sticks
20g whole cloves
malt vinegar to cover
- Layer the damsons and sugar in a casserole.
- Add the spices and vinegar enough to just submerge the fruit, and cover with a lid.
- Place in the oven and turn the heat to 120°C, 100°C Fan.
- Bake gently for 1 hour to draw out the juices.
- Set aside to cool.
- When cold, drain the fruit from the syrup.
- Heat the syrup until boiling, then pour over the fruit and allow to stand until the next day.
- Repeat this draining/boiling each day for the next 7 days (for a total of 8 days).
- Allow the damsons to stand in the syrupy pickle for seven more days.
- Spoon the damsons into warmed pots, boil the syrup and pour over the fruit.
- Seal at once.
- Cherries may also be pickled in this way.
Mrs Musson’s Baroda Chutney
This recipe, from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, won first prize in the Farmer and Stockbreeder Competition in 1950, and it is my new, favourite chutney. It can be found in a delightful little book entitled “Cook it the Farmhouse Way” by Barbara Wilcox. A digitised copy of the book can be borrowed for 2 weeks from The Internet Archive – click here.
The damsons give it a beautiful, rich colour, and the chutney can be eaten immediately. It is fantastic with both cold meats and cheeses.
1.35kg apples – peeled and cored
1.35kg marrow – peeled and chopped roughly
900g damsons, counted
1.125kg onions – peeled
1tsp dried chilli flakes
115g mustard seed – yellow or black
50g fresh ginger – sliced thin
15g whole cloves
1.7 litres malt vinegar
- Chop the apples, marrow, tomatoes, onions, shallots and garlic. You can do this by hand or, as I did, by pulsing them 2 or 3 times in a food processor. You want your resulting chutney to be fine enough to spread in a sandwich without any unseemly large pieces.
- Put into a large bowl with the damsons, salt, chillies and sugar.
- Mix thoroughly, then cover with cling film and leave overnight.
- The next day, tie the spices and the sliced ginger in a muslin bag and add to the vegetables, together with the vinegar.
- Mix thoroughly then pour everything into a preserving pan.
- Bring slowly to the boil, stirring frequently, then turn the heat down and simmer until no excess moisture is visible – 4-6 hours – stirring regularly. Alternatively, you can cook this, uncovered, in a slow cooker. It requires less stirring, although the cooking time then increases to about 10 hours.
- Remove the muslin bag of spices and fish out the damsons stones (optional – but you might want to write a reminder on the label if you keep them in). If you counted your damsons before cooking, you can easily keep track of how many stones you need to retrieve.
- Pot and seal at once.