Damsons are a high maintenance love affair. You can’t just coast with damsons, putting in minimal effort for a lot of reward, like you can with a strawberry, perhaps, or a pear – all you need with these easy goers is, at most, a knife. They’re not a fruit to be popped carelessly into the mouth while reading the morning newspaper, or something to munch as a snack on the go. They’re not something you can half-heartedly throw into a cake batter for a sweet and sticky result, or toss into the smoothie maker for an afternoon pick-me-up.
Damsons demand work. Firstly, there’s that mouth-puckering astringency to get around. They need both heat and sugar if you don’t want your tongue to feel like a desert. But then there’s the problem of those fiddly little stones, which will not part from their fleshy casing for love nor money. It is this, surely, that stops damson pie or damson crumble from being a more regular fixture on our autumn tables. While the cherry has been fortunate enough to get its own pitting implement, no such article exists for the sadly overlooked damson.
As a result, these fruits are often relegated to a position that is tragically ignominious, given their potential. They may not promise much, with their dull purplish-black skins, but put them in a pan and you’ll be rewarded with a colour that could rival most Renaissance paintings for its vibrancy (and turmeric and beetroot for its potential to stain – wear an apron).
I have to admit, I was a damson sceptic until very recently. I once tried to make a crumble with them, and was so scarred (literally and mentally) from the attempt to remove their stones that I hardly dared to try again. Try I did, using the fruit to make a sweet-tart sauce for a crispy, five-spice roasted duck, but it didn’t blow me away and I still found them far too sour. This recipe would not be coming to you at all if it weren’t for my mother, who kindly left a box of damsons in my fridge for when I returned from holiday. They sat there for a good three weeks, weighing on my conscience, before I did what any self-respecting cook would do when faced with the problem of a confoundingly tricky fruit: consult Nigel Slater’s Tender Part II.
Nigel has a recipe for damson ice cream that first attracted me with its incredible colour. The attraction didn’t stop there, however: this ice cream doesn’t involve faffing around making custard or infusing milk. It simply requires you to make a beautiful inky purple puree by simmering damsons with sugar and water before sieving them to remove the stones (hooray!), and then stirring this opulent mixture into ready-made custard. I used the best quality vanilla custard I could find, which I’d recommend – the stuff you get in the chiller aisle of supermarkets, emphatically NOT the stuff that comes in a carton and is the colour of a canary. The result is an incredible pink-purple ice, sweet and tart and refreshing with an undertone of creamy vanilla. It really showcases the flavour of damsons, sweet and slightly sour with that ripe, jammy flavour you get from the best English plums. You could devour it all on its own, enjoying the traces of its resplendent colour left over in the bowl afterwards, but I decided to go a step further and pair this refreshing concoction with a rich and buttery crumble: the ultimate autumn pudding.
I’m still working my way through a glut of apples from my tree, so it had to be apple crumble. However, quince season is upon us once more, so I jumped at the chance to use my favourite mysterious and exotic fruit. Quince lends a lovely sweet perfume to an apple crumble, its harder, grainer flesh tucked in amongst the frothy mass of apple, a little sweet surprise that turns the ordinary apple crumble into something rather special. The topping is my standard crumble topping, which I’ve got down to a fine art now – flour and butter, of course, then demerara sugar and oats for crunch, and a little mixed spice for that buttery autumnal warmth. It has the perfect ratio of crunch to gooeyness.
Thirty-five minutes in the oven later, and you have a crisp, sticky, buttery crust barely concealing a bubbling mass of sweet, golden, fragrant fruit, perfectly tart against the rich topping. The damson ice cream, far from being too sour, is the perfect match for this: its balance of tart and creamy pairs wonderfully with the crunchy, nutty, buttery crumble and the delicate warm froth of apple and quince below. As if that weren’t enough, the colour contrast is just beautiful, hues of sand and gold and then that royal purple.
I genuinely think this might be the ultimate autumn dessert. You could, of course, just make the crumble on its own if you can’t find damsons, or use some good-flavoured ripe plums instead and add a little lemon juice for the acidity. I think raspberry ice cream might also be rather good here, or home-made blackcurrant or blackberry. Use this as your blueprint for an autumnal feast of sugar and spice, but do try and give a tasty home to those greatly underrated damsons. I’m a convert now, and I bet you will be too.
Apple and quince crumble with damson ice cream (serves 6 generously):
For the ice cream:
- 450g damsons
- 4 tbsp caster sugar
- 250-350ml top quality ready-made custard
For the crumble:
- 1 quince
- 1.5kg cooking apples
- Juice of half a lemon
- 4 tbsp light muscovado sugar
- 30g butter
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 200g plain flour
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 100g demerara sugar
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 100g jumbo oats
- 3 tbsp milk or water
First, make the ice cream. Put the damsons in a lidded saucepan with the sugar and 3 tbsp water. Bring to the boil, cover with a lid, then simmer for 10-15 minutes until the skins of the fruit have split and they have released dark purple juice. Set a sieve over a large bowl or measuring jug, then pour the damsons into the sieve. Using a spatula, push the damson mixture through the sieve until all you have left are stones – this will take a few minutes and a bit of muscle! Don’t forget to scrape the underside of the sieve. You will end up with a puree in the jug/bowl. Allow this to cool, then stir in the custard – add 250ml at first, then taste: if you want it sweeter or creamier, add a little more. Churn the mixture in an ice cream machine, then put in the freezer to firm up.
For the crumble, first peel and core the quince. Chop into 1-inch cubes, then simmer these in a small pan of water until just tender. Drain and set aside. Peel and core the apples, then thickly slice half of them and roughly chop the rest. Toss in a large bowl with the lemon juice and muscovado sugar.
Melt the butter over a high heat in a large frying pan, then add the apples, quince and cinnamon. Cook for around 10 minutes, stirring only occasionally, until some of the apples have softened and turned mushy, but some are still holding their shape. Pour the fruit into a baking dish (around 8x12 in). Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
For the crumble, rub the butter into the flour with your fingers or a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the demerara sugar, oats and mixed spice, then add the milk and stir through to make the mixture ‘pebbly’. Spread the crumble lightly over the fruit in the baking dish, then bake for 35 minutes until golden and the fruit is bubbling invitingly. Serve warm, with the ice cream.