Damson Preserves

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.

Damson Conserve

MS1795
From MS1795, circa 1685, Wellcome Library Collection

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 damsons
1lb granulated sugar
120ml water

  • 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

19th century

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.

3.2kg damsons
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
1.35kg tomatoes
900g damsons, counted
1.125kg onions – peeled
225g shallots
170g garlic
140g salt
1tsp dried chilli flakes
900g sugar
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.
Advertisements

Hot-Pickled Herring

This recipe is something of a contradiction because, despite the name, it is eaten cold.

The slow poaching in a lightly flavoured vinegar neutralises the oiliness of the herring to a certain extent, and the herbs and onion make for a fine, delicate flavour.

This method is also much quicker than the traditional method of sousing herring, which involves both brining and marinading in spiced vinegar over several days. You can put this dish into the oven at 6pm, cook and then leave to cool in the oven overnight and it is ready to eat the following day. This method also has the advantage of dissolving all the tiny pin bones that abound in herring, leaving just the backbone to lift free when served.

The recommended dressing is for oil and vinegar, but a little crème fraiche or even the strained cooking liquid are also enjoyable.

Pickled Herring Recipe
Source: MS1795, Wellcome Library Collection

Hot Pickled Herring

1 herring or 2 herring fillets per person
1tsp salt
1tsp black pepper
100g butter
1 large bunch of thyme.
2 onions, sliced thinly into rings
1 litre white wine vinegar to cover

  • Cut off the herring heads and tails if necessary. Rinse and pat dry.
  • Sprinkle the herring wth salt and pepper.
  • Slice the butter thinly and lay half in the bottom of an oven-proof dish.
  • Arrange a layer of onion and thyme sprigs and lay the herrings on top.
  • Repeat the layers of butter, onion/thyme and herring until the dish is full (or ingredients are finished).
  • Pour over sufficient white wine vinegar to cover the herring, then cover the dish with a double layer of cooking foil, tied tightly with string.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6.
  • Bake for 4 hours, then remove and set aside to cool completely.
  • Serve cold.

Pickled Cherries

This recipe comes from the manuscript receipt book of Lady Ann Fanshawe at The Wellcome Library – page 292 by Lady Ann’s numbering. It is very quick and straightforward and not that different to the other pickled cherry recipes around, except for the seasonings.

Lady Ann favours mace and dill which were unusual enough to tempt me to try. The recipe also calls for the very best heart cherries, which are cherries that have a soft and rounded heart shape. A bit of research into old varieties reveals that heart cherries could be both dark or pale. I’ve gone with dark, and used a little red wine in place of the original water, in order to help preserve the colour of the fruit. If you can get pale dessert cherries, then swap the red wine for white.

The original recipe contained no sugar, which was a bit much even for a vinegar-lover like myself, so I have tweaked the recipe and added a little brown sugar to soften the flavour.

Original Recipe
Source: MS7113, Wellcome Library Collections

Pickled Cherries

2kg dark purple cherries
540ml light fruit vinegar – I used home-made gooseberry, but you could use whatever you like, as long as it doesn’t overpower the flavour of the fruit. A white balsamic, for example
180ml red wine
6tbs dark muscovado sugar
3 blades of mace
1 tbs dried dill
½ tsp salt

  • Stone the cherries and arrange them neatly in concentric circles in the bottom of a preserving pan. There should be enough to make a full single layer covering the bottom of the pan.
  • Add the sugar, mace, dill and salt.
  • Gently pour in the vinegar and red wine. This should just cover the cherries.  If you need more liquid add it in the proportion of 3 parts vinegar, 1 part wine.
  • Put the pan on medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer.
  • Cook for 10 minutes, until the cherries are just tender but still holding their shape.
  • Gently spoon the cherries into sterilised jars. Pour in the cooking liquid to cover and seal.
  • Can be enjoyed immediately with ham and terrines, as well as fatty meats such as roast lamb, duck and pork.