To my shame, I missed the damsons last year, despite driving past trees and seeing mounds of fallen fruit on the ground. This year, I was determined to get my fill. So on the 19th August, prompted by harvesting the plums in my garden, I set out with my wife and two youngest children, a large bucket and a couple of small ladders. As it turned out, we didn’t need the ladders – there were more than we could cope with even on the lowest branches!
In case you’re not sure what a damson is, it’s basically a small plum and they can be found on trees along the roadside all over the country. Within a mile of my house in Alton, Hampshire, there are six trees that I know of. And they’re quite easy to spot – they have the same leaves as plum trees (and blackthorn, which produce sloes – smaller fruit, same family) and in August the ground beneath them is often littered with fallen fruits, most commonly orangey-yellow or dark purple.
Damsons ripen in mid August, though they can be picked most of the month, and in good years you fill bucket after bucket with the fruit. One slight drawback of picking fruit from the roadside is that the skin tends to get covered in a dusty film of dirt, making your hands filthy and the fruit unpalatable for eating while picking. Not that it put off my kids!
The first thing to do when you get the damson home, then, is wash them. I tend to fill the bucket they’re in with cold water and swish them around a bit. Don’t scrub them, it’ll only break the skins. And don’t leave them sitting in water as that will also break the skins.
We picked 4.5 kg of damsons this year and, once washed, I dumped them into a large jam pan, sprinkled on a cupful of sugar, and put them on the stove on a medium heat.
Most recipes suggest adding water, but it’s really not necessary – once the heat picks up, the juice from the damsons will produce sufficient liquid to stew them in. Or to put it another way: let them stew in their own juices. Also, don’t bother skinning and stoning them, it’s much easier to do that when they’re cooked.
I add in sugar as I go, and only add enough to take the sharp edge off the taste – it’s always possible to add more when we eventually eat the damsons. For the 4.5kg, I added just under a kilo of sugar.
Once cooked, the damsons were strained through a sieve to get rid of the skins and stones, leaving us with a delicious damson puree. Food for free(ish) – what could be better than that?