Frederick Nutt, on Preserving ‘Damsons, Wet’ and ‘Damsons, Dried’

No. 201. Damsons, Whole, Wet
"Get some of the largest and best damsons, and prick them with a pin at each end, boiling some syrup on a brisk fire, in your preserving pan for a quarter of an hour ; then put your damsons in, and boil them twenty minutes ; put them in an earthen pan, cover them up with paper, and skim them as they boil quite clean ; put them into your pan ; the next day strain the syrup from them, and let it have a good boil ; then put the damsons into the pots, and when cold put fome apple jelly over them."

Frederick Nutt, The Complete Confectioner 2nd edition, 1790

It’s damson season! We’ve been harvesting kilos and kilos of them from one medium sized tree this year, and so I’ve been on the hunt for interesting ways to make use of these tart little plums, beyond the obvious (and yes, delicious, but also energy-intensive) damson jam.

This eighteenth century, multi-stage method for preserving damsons is quite similar to the modern ‘bottling’ technique, in which fruit is cooked in a light syrup and then sealed in sterilised jars, without the need for lengthy boiling and the reaching of setting points that’s involved in the making of a jam or marmalade.

However, Mr. Nutt’s method is a little more confusing. It starts off clearly enough: pick the best damsons you have, prick them at each end to allow ingress for the sugar syrup, then boil them for twenty minutes in said syrup. Next they need to be moved to an earthen(ware?) pan for further boiling and skimming, the pan needs to stand overnight, and then the syrup is strained off.

The next instruction: “let it have a good boil” could therefore refer to either the fruit or the syrup. If the former, you’re probably going to reduce the fruit to a thick compote or puree, if they haven’t reached that stage already, and the title of this recipe is “Damsons, Whole, Wet”, which suggests you don’t want that to happen. So let’s assume it’s the latter, and you’re going to reduce the syrup to a thicker consistency. But then why would Mr. Nutt tell us to put the damsons in pots and cover them with apple jelly, if we’ve got a nice, thick damson syrup to hand to do the job with instead? Unless the damson syrup is to be reserved for use in other recipes? A batch of damson shrub (coming soon, watch this space) for instance?

It gets even more contradictory when you take a look at Frederick’s method for drying damsons:

No. 219. Damsons, Dried
"Take damsons that you have preserved, drain all the syrup from them, cover the bottoms of the sieves and put them in your stoves which must be hot, change the sieves every day till they are dry, and as you change the sieves turn your damsons, and when they are not sticky nor likely to give, take them out an paper a box and put them in, and lay a paper between every layer of damsons."

So, it appears that the preserved damsons are stored in their own syrup after all? And it’s preserved, rather than fresh damsons that are called on to be used for drying. Which rather makes sense, as the fresh fruits contain a lot of water, so baking them in the oven would just cause the skins to split and the fruits to go to mush. Whereas if they’ve been preserved reasonably whole in sugar syrup, the water content will have been much reduced, and the fruits should hold some of their shape as they dry.

Incidentally: C18th sieves would most likely have been made from wood and horse-hair – as explained in a blog post at butterthesizeofanegg.com – rather than metal, which probably explains why they would need to be changed on a daily basis, perhaps in order to prevent them from scorching?

How about you? Do you have an easier-to-follow method for preserving damsons, either wet or dry, reasonably intact or as a compote, historical or modern? Please do let me know, via the comments.

2 comments

    1. Well, yes, quite. Unless the damsons in question are picked under-ripe so they’re rock hard or something? But surely they’d disintegrate in the boiling?

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