Sep 11

Pickled damsons

This time of year must certainly be the solution to the hungry gap we have to endure at the start of Spring. Massive bounties of wild fruit seem to be jostling for attention and demanding new ingenious ways of preservation.

My original intention was to preserve these little purple beauties as damson gin. Oh yes, I was ready to commit myself to large scale production in order to ensure continual merriment through winter but my foraging plans were scuppered when we had to make a last-minute trip. My sensible head was telling me it was the wrong time to start fussing about with the preparation of alcoholic beverages. So, I responsibly decided to delay picking the damsons until our return and focus on more serious things like making sure I had packed enough underwear and that the plants were watered. Then, the evening before we left, we were given an enormous bag of very ripe damsons by a fellow forager. I dutifully washed each piece of fruit and stacked them single file on trays in the fridge, crossing my fingers that the ripening process would be halted and the fruit still as luscious on our return. Unfortunately, when the fridge was re-opened I was greeted with a fermenting smell that explained I would not be giving out damson gin to one and all at Christmas. Oh, those long winter days….

Not to be dissuaded, I sorted through the tray and actually managed to save around 1kg of perfectly ripe, shiny damsons. I decided to celebrate by opening a bottle of white wine vinegar and pickling them immediately into submission.

I had never pickled fruit before but came across this recipe in Glynn Christian’s indispensable classic – Contemporary Home Cooking. Pickling is not a preservation method which immediately springs to mind for fruit but  it really does work exceptionally well with damsons. The tartness of the fruit is the perfect partner for rich meaty dishes, game, smoked fish and surprisingly delightful with ice cream. The thick fruit vinegar in which the damsons are cooked and stored can be used to drizzle over salads, added during cooking as an ingredient or as a condiment to dash over whatever takes your fancy.

Pickled damsons could be Britain’s answer to umeboshi plums. These are favoured in Japanese cooking for stimulating digestion and have been credited with all sorts of other medicinal benefits including as a hangover cure. Although the preparation process for umeboshi plums is more akin to brining, perhaps the damsons have similar restorative and rejuvenating qualities, especially due to the fact they ferment slightly during the resting periods. At the very least, pickled damsons are extremely versatile and very tasty.

The process is fairly lengthy – involving a few days of resting between each stage – but you probably only need to allocate an hour or so in total for actual work. The rest of the time the damsons and vinegar will do their thing completely independently.

One thing to note – beware if you are inviting any sensitive guests around the time you intend to cook this. The fumes are likely to permeate your entire house making your soft furnishings smell like vinegar-soaked chips and, no – a few scooshes of Febreze cannot tackle something of this intensity. Any occupants may also feel a little light-headed during the last cooking stage so be sure to also keep the area well-ventilated.

Pickled Damson Recipe

  • 1kg damsons
  • 1kg sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 cloves
  • 2 tsp allspice berries
  • 2cm piece of root ginger
  • 600ml white wine vinegar

Wash the damsons and pierce them with a skewer. Put them into a large, non-metallic bowl and set aside while you prepare the vinegar.

Place the sugar and spices in a pan with the vinegar and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Pour the mixture over the damsons, cover, and leave to rest for 2 – 3 days.

Strain the vinegar mixture into a pan, bring to the boil then pour over the damsons again. Leave them to rest for another 2 – 3 days.

Yep – repeat the straining, boiling and resting process once more.

Strain the vinegar into a pan and simmeruntil it has reduced to a thick syrup.

Pack the strained fruit into sterilised jars then pour over the hot syrup.

Let the pickled damsons mature for a few weeks before opening.

If you can bear to wait until Christmas they make a perfect accompaniment to Christmas dinner.

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