This week Simona from Briciole is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I'm exploring the culinary potential of damsons, a quintessentially English fruit.
I may have mentioned my habit of obsessively hoarding fruit in season. The other day I woke up with a faint sense of panic. It took me an entire morning to realise its cause; I had a vague inkling that cherries were slowly disappearing, steadily growing in price which no doubt signalled an upcoming dearth. Slightly maddened by this, thinking of all those cherry recipes I had yet to try, I rushed to the market and the supermarket and stockpiled a kilo and a half of the little red fruits. I spent a pleasant twenty minutes (apron-clad, of course) pitting them before methodically placing them into freezer bags and consigning them to the icy depths of the deep freeze. Suddenly I became sadly aware of their multiple sweet and savoury possibilities, painfully conscious of the fact that a mere one and a half kilos would not be enough to satisfy my creative culinary requirements. I spent a difficult day in this state before reminding myself that actually, I don't even like cherries all that much. I now just feel slightly ashamed at my ridiculous, child-like nature, wanting something just as I realise I might not be able to have it for much longer.
So when I spied some damsons on sale the other day, I snapped them up without hesitation. I'm on holiday in Yorkshire at the moment (as I speak the rain is falling in thick curtains outside the open door, the patio already so flooded that ripples appear where the drops fall, and the sky is a steady, unwavering shade of grey that, if I had to name it on a paint chart, I would call "Meh"), and revelling in all the wonderful things the countryside provides. Unfortunately it's a bit too early for blackberries (though they're proliferating wildly down south, which just goes to show the massive difference in climates that my mother, a Yorkshire lass born and bred, is always so keen to deny), but a trip to the little deli on the high street near our cottage turned up some treasures, as usual. The last time I paid a visit there, I was rewarded with huge thick stalks of neon-pink Yorkshire rhubarb, sweet and tangy, which I simmered into a compote and ate smothered on top of hot, raisin-studded porridge. This time, it was the turn of plums and damsons.
Plums and damsons have also succumbed to my hoarding tendencies. Last autumn I became rather fond of plums on my porridge, and decided that I should try and preserve some. I'd done it with apricots a few weeks previously, keeping them suspended in a large kilner jar in a sugar syrup infused with cinnamon, orange flower water and cloves (I ate them about 6 months later, once apricots had disappeared from the market and I was missing their sunshine colours and beautiful jammy sweetness - they were delicious). I tried it with plums, throwing a few damsons in there too simply because I'd heard they were good and worth preserving, though I'd never actually tried them myself. Unfortunately, this experiment was a disaster. For some unknown reason, the plums started to ferment, bubbling viscously out of the sealed jar to the point where my mum, terrified that they'd explode all over the kitchen, moved the jar outside and begged me to let her throw them away. Heartbroken at the thought of parting with my plums, but more afraid of breaking the lovely preserving jar, I eventually agreed. Fail.
I now realise that this was a bit of a fruitless notion (literally), because plums are around pretty much all year. Yes, they're imported and often horrible, but I've feasted on delicious specimens from the market in Oxford for months after the English ones have gone; huge, regal purple orbs that soften deliciously when simmered in orange juice with raisins, cloves and ginger. Plums, like apricots, are one of those fruits that you can nearly always rectify with cooking and judicious use of warm spice. My desire to preserve them, I think, stemmed mainly from the fact that the English varieties are so much more beautiful than their imported cousins, which are often uniformly spherical and uniformly coloured, a dark maroon bordering on black. English plums come in all shapes and sizes, are often delicate ovals rather than squat spheres, and are frequently beautifully coloured, a delightful mottling of green, blushing pink and dark purple, sometimes with a patch of blood red or black. I love seeing them all piled up at the market, several different varieties on sale, all with their individual charms and culinary advantages.
Damsons are new to me. They're like tiny little plums, often used to make jams or jellies because of their strong, sweet-tart flavour (you can also use them to make gin, as with sloes). They're only around for a short time, usually early autumn, though the seasons seem to be a bit weird at the moment, and everything is appearing earlier. I've read a lot about them, particularly in Nigel Slater's books, but I've never cooked with them before, mainly because they're such a faff to de-stone. However, the sight of them at the deli the other day couldn't fail to entice me. They were tiny, like marbles, some perfectly round, others more tapered, some with little green stalks still attached, all of them a wonderful deep, inky purple. I bought a few handfuls, along with some lovely little plums. There were greengages, too, which I hope to cook with again before the season is over, after the success that was my greengage and almond cake. The damsons were indeed a pain to de-stone, leaving me with filthy fingernails and mild RSI, but the result was worth it - I didn't want spitting out stones to get in the way of good cobbler enjoyment. I didn't have my cherry pitter here, but I'm not entirely sure it would have worked anyway, as the stone to fruit ratio is higher than with cherries.
I didn't really need to think about what to do with the plums. It was always going to be a cobbler, my absolute favourite pudding and so versatile, working with almost all fruits. You end up with a gorgeous layer of warm, jammy, soft fruit, topped with a delicious scone crust that is all soft and fluffy where it meets the fruit juice, and crunchy on top where it's been sprinkled with demerara sugar and baked to a satisfying sweet crisp in the heat of the oven. I thought the dark plum juices would work perfectly with the scone topping. Damsons, it transpires, are really very tart - you need quite a lot of sugar in this cobbler to balance out their sourness, but it's still delicious even when on the sharp side, especially with lots of vanilla ice cream to introduce some calming, sugar-laden dairy.
As an aside, don't you just love this pie dish? I found it in the cupboard here - I think it must have been my Nanna's. It's just the right size to fill with sugar-sprinkled fruit and a comforting doughy crust - not quite apple pie, but still deliciously sweet, warming and autumnal.
This is exactly the thing for a rainy evening in Yorkshire. I love the tart plum juices against the dense, crunchy scone dough. I had to make do with the ingredients I found in the larder up here (one of the perils of being an obsessive cook and going self-catering is that there's always one 'crucial' ingredient missing) - I'd have liked to put almond essence in the plum mixture and some flaked almonds on top of the cobbler to turn toasty and delicious, but this was still wonderful without. You can play around with the spices, too, using ginger instead of cinnamon (or both), or maybe some nutmeg or cardamom. The inclusion of oats and wholemeal flour in the topping gives it a delicious nutty texture and flavour which is perfect against the sharp fruit. Delicious.
Plum and damson cobbler (serves 4):
800g plums and damsons, stoned and halved
6 heaped tbsp caster sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
A splash of orange juice
100g wholemeal flour
2 tsp baking powder
25g cold butter, cubed
25g demerara sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
150ml buttermilk or yoghurt
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Arrange the plums in a pie or baking dish. Mix with the caster sugar, cinnamon and orange juice. Put in the oven for 10 minutes while you make the cobbler topping.
Put the oats, flour, baking powder and demerara sugar in a large bowl. Rub the butter into the mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, as you would for a crumble. Pour in the buttermilk and mix to a soft dough.
Remove the dish from the oven and dollop the cobbler mixture in spoonfuls over the top. Sprinkle with a little more demerara sugar and return to the oven for 30 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.