Damsons – An Ancient Fruit in the Modern Kitchen by Sarah Conrad Gothie recounts the long history of this delicious but under-utilised fruit and then brings it bang up to date with a fantastic selection of recipes for modern cooks to experiment with and enjoy.
Just under half the book is an introduction to the damson and its very close (indeed, almost indistinguishable) relative, the bullace plum. The author covers everything from the general definition and specific morphology of the fruit, to a history of damson, from its origins in the middle east – ‘damson’ is generally considered to be an anglicised version of ‘damascene’, suggesting an association with Damascus – to its heyday of growth and popularity in the orchards and hedgerows of England.
There is, of course, a particular focus on the damson-growing strongholds of Westmorland (Cumbria) and Shropshire, two parts of the country in which the damson is still rightly feted to the present day. The rise and fall of the fruit’s popularity, alongside that of plums in general, is charted from its industrial-scale jam-making heyday to a sadly inevitable collapse after world war two.
On a more positive note, there are details of where and how enthusiasts and orchardists can obtain and grow damsons, a venture that’s well worth undertaking, even if the five, six or seven year wait for a tree to bear fruit can be off-putting for some. Then, in the second half of the book, we come to the recipes.
Starting with the essentials – jam, jelly and fruit cheese – the author moves on to sauces, ketchups, cakes, puddings, ice creams, sorbets and much more; pretty much any dish in which the sharp, sour-sweet tang of the damson is off-set by the sweetness of added sugar or milder fruits is represented in some form, from the ‘erbowle’ of The Forme of Cury (c. 1390) to a very modern ‘damson gochujang barbecue sauce’. There’s also a selection of damson-based drinks: syrups, shrubs, wines and spirits that are guaranteed to set your taste buds tingling.
Damsons – An Ancient Fruit in the Modern Kitchen is short but comprehensive and Sarah Conrad Gothie writes in an engaging and lively style throughout. It’s a quick, easy and highly informative read, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in starting to grow damsons, or who already grows their own – or forages them from woods and hedgerows – and is looking to expand their damson-flavoured kitchen repertoire.
Damsons – An Ancient Fruit in the Modern Kitchen is published by Prospect Books (r.r.p. £9.99, current price £7.50 + postage) and is part of their ‘The English Kitchen‘ series (which also includes books on growing and cooking with nuts, quinces, berries and cherries & mulberries). You can order a copy direct from the publisher (which means that as much of the profit as possible goes to the publisher and author) but of course it’s also available from all good book shops and online retailers, including Amazon.co.uk.