Dear Readers, my local greengrocer, Tony’s Continental on the High Road in East Finchley, London, is my go-to spot for unusual produce. Some fruits and vegetables come in and out of season at such a rate that you might miss them if you blink. And now is the season for plums of all kinds: the golden-skinned Victoria, the olive-coloured greengage, and our subject today, the night-hued damson. Unlike other plums, the damson errs on the side of astringency, giving it a mouth-puckering flavour that, when tamed down a bit with something sweet, makes it one of my favourite subjects for jam.
The name ‘damson’ is thought to come from the name ‘damascene’, meaning ‘Plum of Damascus’, and one theory suggest that the plant came to the UK with the Romans. Certainly damson stones have been found at some Roman sites during archaeological digs. Damsons are probably a domesticated variety of a subspecies of the wild plum known as the Bullace, and their full species name is Prunus domestica subspecies insititia variety damascena. Wild damsons occasionally pop up in hedgerows or on woodland edges, but all wild plums are extremely variable and difficult to identify. The fruit of the damson is dark indigo, with a slight bloom of pale blue and sometimes with small patches of rust. The ones in the photo below remind me of Europa, the moon of Jupiter, although I’ll admit that they are rather more ovoid. Damsons are, as anyone who has attempted to make jam with them will tell you, of the ‘clingstone’ variety – this means that the flesh clings to the stone, making them something of a pain to prepare for jam. However, many cooks boil them up intact and remove the the stones at the end, once the fruit is pulped and split. The stones are said to impart a subtle almond flavour, largely due to the small quantity of cyanide that they contain.
At one time, damsons were an extremely popular food crop – they are said to be the only plums planted north of Norfolk, and were used extensively for commercial jam-making. The plants were also used as hedging in orchards to protect more delicate trees. They were taken to North America by English settlers in the eighteenth century and were thought to thrive better in the local conditions than other plum varieties. In some places, such as Idaho, the plant naturalised and can be found growing wild.
With its dark colour, it’s no surprise that damsons were reputed to have been used in local dyeing industries. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how a variety of damson called the ‘Edlesborough Prune’ (from a village near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire) was used to provide dye for the Luton hat trade, while the ‘Aylesbury Prune’ was unique to the village of Weston Turville, and was used as a dye on the straw plaiting that was a cottage industry at the time. However, contemporary experiments with using damsons as a dye have been rather disappointing in terms of the colours produced – see this post from Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour for example. One conclusion is that the fruit was probably used primarily for eating, with only damaged fruit being used for dye as a side line. Another is that the ‘damson’ used for dyeing might have been a completely different plant, or that there might have been some trick to extracting the colour. It is clear, however, that there are a multitude of different, very local varieties of wild plum with varied characteristics. What a treasure of genetic diversity they could be!
Now, to return to the subject of jam. I have three books on preserving (my cookbook collection is only outnumbered by my collection of field guides and nature books) and they all have a different approach to this fruit. In ‘Five Seasons of Jam’, Lillie O’Brien suggests making a virtue of the damson’s high pectin content to make damson ‘cheese’ (a bit like quince paste). This also has the added benefit that the fruit is cooked with the stones in and then sieved, avoiding all that tedious stoning. In my second book, ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’ by Diana Henry, there is a gratifying concentration on alcohol, with a recipe for damson and gin jam (the damsons are cooked with the stone in, and these are then skimmed off). She also has a recipe for damson gin, which is very similar to sloe gin, one of my all-time favourite tipples. This involves piercing each damson with a skewer, but it produces a most delicious, warming drink that I associate with winter and with Christmas in particular. In my final book, ‘The Modern Preserver’ by Kylee Newton, there is a recipe for damson and orange jam. Kylee suggests using the preserve instead of raspberry jam in a Bakewell tart, a thought that gets my mouth watering. Apparently damsons also freeze well, so I think I shall have to rush to Tony’s and get a bag full for one of those days when I’m not run off my feet. Making jam is a most meditative and gratifying process, but it does take a bit of time.
Incidentally, damson wine was once a common drink in England: a nineteenth century source stated that ‘good damson wine is, perhaps, the nearest approach to good port that we have in England. No currant wine can equal it.'(Damson Wine”, in Hogg and Johnson (eds) The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Country Gentleman, v.III NS (1862), 264)
Now, in my research for this piece I came across the most delightful website, called ‘Damson Plums‘ by Daiv Sizer. They moved into a house with an old damson tree in the garden, and were immediately smitten by the abundance of the fruit and the low-maintenance required by the plant. Daiv has created a complete guide to everything damson related, including history, recipes and the culture surrounding the plant. I had no idea that it had featured in so many poems by so many authors, from last week’s favourite Seamus Heaney to Shakespeare and Chaucer. The fruit also appears several times in the books of George Eliot, and in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’ the character Suke Damson, a wild and buxom village maiden, is seen by one critic as being ‘the juicy plum is ripe for Fitzpier’s plucking’ (Landscape and Gender in the Novels of Bronte, Eliot and Hardy, by Eithne Henson). But for this week’s poem I shall return to another favourite, Edward Thomas. Thomas wrote this poem in 1915 while he was in Essex, teaching map-reading to officers. He had been encouraged to sign up (although he was a mature man who didn’t need to enlist) after reading his friend Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Less Travelled’ – Frost intended the poem to be a way of gently mocking Thomas’s indecision during their woodland walks, but Thomas took it much more seriously. In 1917 he died at Arras in France, having been shot through the chest. Rarely can a piece of poetry have had such a devastating effect.
‘There’s nothing like the sun‘
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said –
Or, if I could live long enough, should say –
‘There’s nothing like the sun that shines today.’
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.
– Edward Thomas