Each season has its own gems, although I must admit I have a particular fondness for summer produce: succulent crab meat, juicy berries, vibrant salad leaves, lashings of crisp rosé wine… but the long, lazy days of sunshine and holidays are now behind us and it’s time to move into autumn. Once you get over the crashing slump of post-holiday blues, you can start to appreciate the fantastic foods appearing in gardens, hedgerows and fields now. One of the best things about this latest seasonal shift is the arrival of damsons. These little beauties are currently ripening on trees, just waiting to be picked and turned into all kinds of deliciousness.
My mother’s Damson Ketchup deserves the first mention as it has attained almost mythical status amongst friends and family, with pleas for her recipe rolling in thick and fast around this time of year. The process makes the kitchen look like the film set from a battle scene in Game of Thrones, but the end result is extremely worth it. I’d recommend a good pair of (clean) rubber gloves and a rainy afternoon to while away in the kitchen.
- 6-8 dried chillies
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
- 15g (½ oz) dried root ginger, crushed a bit first (or 30g / 1oz of fresh ginger, grated)
- 15g (½ oz) allspice berries
- 2 whole garlic cloves
- 3.6kg (8 lbs) damsons
- 225g (8 oz) currants
- 450g (1 lb) onions chopped small
- 55g (2 oz) course salt
- 450g (1 lb) demerara sugar
- 950ml (2 pints) distilled white vinegar
- Tie up the chillies, peppercorns, mustard seeds, ginger, allspice berries and garlic cloves in muslin to make a little bag.
- Very gently heat the damsons until the juice runs and they go soft enough to put on the rubber gloves and squeeze the stones out until most of them are out. Then put the pulp in a colander to trap the rest of the stones, being careful to put all the pulp back in the pan.
- Add currants, onions and bag of spices. Add half of the vinegar, bring to the boil and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 30 mins or until mixture is soft.
- Remove the bag of spices, place contents of pan in liquidiser and blend until perfectly smooth.
- Rinse out the pan and return the purée and bag of spices to it, add salt, sugar and remaining vinegar.
- Bring to simmer and cook gently, uncovered, for 1½ to 2 hours or until the ketchup has reduced to approximately 1.6 litres (3½ pints). At this stage, the ketchup should be slightly thinner than you would like it as it thickens as time goes by. Whilst cooking, stir occasionally to prevent it sticking.
- Pour into sterilised bottles, label and store for at least 6 months and up to 3 years.
Another favourite is Damson Gin – like the ketchup, it takes a little patience, not just to make it but also for it to be ready to drink, but I promise you it is very much worth the wait. The trick is to make as much of it as you possibly can as you’ll dread running out of this fragrant, jewel-hued nectar. I love drinking it with tonic on warmer days (no need for a wedge of lemon or lime as it’s quite tart enough as it is) or sipping it neat as a digestif. I wasn’t sure on the quantity of sugar to use as I’d previously only come across sloe gin; as sloes are much tarter, they require more sugar, which is why I prefer damsons – more natural sweetness and flavour, so less added sugar. I consulted Diana Henry’s fantastic book “Salt Sugar Smoke”, which yields delicious results – her recipe is below.
Fills 1 x 1 litre (1¾ pint) bottle.
- 500g (1lb 2oz) damsons
- 250g (9oz) caster sugar
- 600ml (1 pint) gin
- Prick each damson with a skewer and put into large preserving jar or bottle with the sugar and gin. Seal the top and give the jar a really good shake.
- Now leave it somewhere so the damsons can infuse the gin with their flavour and shake it every day for a week, then every week for 10 weeks or so. Taste and see whether you want to leave it for longer.
- If you are happy with the flavour, pour through a nylon sieve and bottle. Matures after about 18 months and keeps for two years.
But what if you want to enjoy damsons now, without the agonising wait? A sorbet is a great way to showcase damsons as the sharpness of the fruit makes for a satisfyingly tart, assertive taste that really packs a punch. Whereas some sorbets can taste rather generic, there is no doubting the authenticity of the fruit here.
- 1 kg (2lb) damsons
- 450g (14½ oz) caster sugar
- Small pinch of salt
- Put the ingredients in a medium-sized pan over a low heat. Stir until the damsons begin to burst and release their juice.
- Remove from the heat and strain through a sieve, pushing gently with a wooden spoon or ladle.
- Chill the syrup in the fridge until cold and then churn in an ice-cream maker until frozen.
- Remove and store in a small container in the freezer until ready to use.
A teaspoon of the sorbet can be stirred into a glass of Champagne or Prosecco to make a refreshing apéritif that is a modern take on the classic Champagne Cocktail. For a non-alcoholic version, mix the sorbet with a splash of elderflower cordial and top up with sparkling water, or homemade lemonade.
A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 17 September 2014.