[This article appeared in the September 2012 newsletter of the RHS Fruit Group]
George Eliot named it in Mill On The Floss (1860), as did Mary Webb in Precious Bane (1924), and this year northern supermarket chain Booths featured it in their promotion of Forgotten Foods – damson cheese. Its transition from domestic pantry stalwart to slow food artisan-producer product, found in delis and at food festivals, mirrors the recent revival of interest in prunus insititia, the plum of Damascus.
Grown in this country since Roman times, damsons used to be harvested from orchards, hedgerows and cottage gardens on an industrial scale, to satisfy the needs of cloth dyers and jam factories. Chemical dyes replaced fruit, sweet tastes changed away from the tartness of damson, demand disappeared, and swathes of damson trees became neglected, unwanted, or dug up.
This century, damsons have made a comeback, thanks to increasing interest in home baking and preserving, slow foods, traditional British foods, wild foods and foraging, growing and cooking your own food. This has been stimulated by TV gardening and cookery programmes and their spin-off books and websites, community orchards, farmers’ markets, food fairs and festivals and ‘food tourism’, and the rise of small, artisan food and drinks producers.
My own interest started when we moved into a house with a well-established damson tree n the back garden. It needed no pruning or tending, had no diseases, and gave bumper crops in late summer that we turned into damson crumbles, gin, and jam.
Since then I’ve been collecting all sorts of stuff about damsons that I’ve finally put together as A Guide to Damsons, a 64-page pdf available free to download from www.daiv.co.uk It has sections on varieties (over 30), growing and gathering (including 17 nurseries that supply damson trees), buying, storing, cooking, eating and drinking (more than 50 recipe titles, and an A-Z of TV cooks and food writers and their damson recipes). I have researched damsons in poetry and prose, and books and organizations focused on damsons. It also lists the many damson-based products now available – more than 40 jams, 20 beers, plus gins, wines, chutneys, syrups, sausages, ice creams and yoghurts.
Described by food writer Nigel Slater as ‘dangling from the tree’s fine twigs in early autumn like dusty, violet black bonbons’, and by naturalist and author Richard Mabey as having a beautiful ‘frost at midnight bloom’, damsons are hardy and tend to succeed where most other plum trees would fail – in areas of higher rainfall and less sunshine. Grow them from rootstock, or suckers (or even from stones), and they can thrive and crop for up to 50 years.
The Westmorland Damson Association, founded in 1996, holds an annual Damson Day in the damson hotspot LythValley in Cumbria each April, and the Shropshire Prune Damson group will be hosting its Damson Day near Ludlow on October 7th.
My video How To Make Damson Gin is on YouTube, and you can follow my tweets about all things damson on Twitter @damsonplums
Daiv Sizer September 2012