I rather enjoyed dating the damson vodka “April Fools’ Day”. As spring advances, we feel the urgent need to do something useful with the produce which we abandoned to the freezers last autumn because we were tired and wanted a break. That’s the biggest danger with freezers. We chronically overproduce on the allotment and then use the freezers to hold the surpluses until we can think what to do with them. Consequently the 5 kilos of damsons were removed from cryogenic storage last week and were turned into 2 litres of damson vodka and 11 lbs of damson jam. The last couple of kilos will become damson ketchup early next week. They were a gift from a friend on Severnside who didn’t know what to do with them either. His tree is old and marvellously productive and ours is just two years old and may take 15 years to bear any serious quantities of fruit – by which time I’ll be 91 and possibly too wobbly to climb ladders! I seemed to have inherited from my mother some kind of Jungian shared trauma which impels me/us to bottle, pickle and jam at the mere sniff of a plum, ‘because we might need them one day’ .
Of course there is an upside to this. I curl my lip at recipes for instant pickles in the glossy supplements because they just taste like raw veg with vinegar on them. If you enjoy the feeling of your taste buds doing a Mexican wave inside your mouth then be my guest. I prefer to make chutneys and pickles, label them and pack them away somewhere so hidden they come as a complete and marvellous surprise 2 years later when we find them just coming into their prime. Plums, green tomatoes, mixed vegetables and damsons all make lovely chutney but our absolute favourite is a Delia Smith plum chutney called “Dower House Chutney”. Immediately after it’s made it tastes like paintstripper with chilli sauce, but after a couple of years at the back of a cupboard it’s the go-to for anything with cheese – dark, rounded and perfectly blended. The same goes for the ketchups ( we make all our own).
Damson jam is my favourite breakfast treat after marmalade. I don’t think we made any last year – at least we haven’t found it if we did! – and so it was a joy to have some again. Unlike pickles and chutneys, jam is ready to eat as soon as it’s cool. The vodka is blissful after dinner. The books say to strain the fruit off the vodka and sugar after six months, but once again we’ve sometimes left it for well over a year and extracted some of the almond flavour of the stones – giving a much more nuanced and darker taste. Sloe Gin, which we also make, needs a couple or three years to reach its state of grace so the vodka is an easy standby. The other couple of photos are of some bread and a lemon meringue pie that I was practicing for a family meal on Easter Sunday – (I’ve never made it before).
I haven’t written much about the allotment recently simply because the wettest March since records began was a bit of a deterrent. But a few brighter days have made it possible to almost complete the spring preparations whilst we eat spinach from the polytunnel and parsnips, leeks and parsley out of the ground. The potatoes are chitted ready to go in on Good Friday – that’s tomorrow – as per long British tradition. It’s a bit of a daft tradition because Good Friday – as does Easter Day – wanders around all over the calendar simply because solar and lunar calendars can never quite sync; so for the church festival and for allotmenteers we revert to the lunar calendar for planting potatoes. Kind of Steiner lite, you might say.
The broad beans are in, the asparagus is just shooting and the damson (our damson) is in flower. Gratifyingly, the fruiting buds on the apples are looking hearty and – this is down to Madame – beautifully pruned. So it’s all looking good for another season. As I finished bottling the jam the other day, Madame was musing whether we might be that last generation to have learned these skills. On the other hand, our middle son and his partner are keen cooks and gardeners (well he’s a chef, like number three). And post lockdown there are far more young people on the site – which is marvellous too.
There’s nothing like a day on the allotment, with the sun on your back. It can lift the heaviest gloom. For some fine weather gardeners being tempted out for the first time this year, the plots may look a bit overgrown and neglected but that’s just nature doing what nature always does – healing its wounds. Although most of the time we don’t dig but just cultivate the surface; some infestations like Couch, Bindweed or Creeping Thistle really do need to be dug out carefully. That can be hard work, but the robins will come and keep you company and a host of birds will visit the turned earth and eat some pests (so long as it’s an occasional digging and not an annual religious ritual). We think too highly of ourselves if we come to believe that the Earth depends upon us for her vitality. Quite the reverse is, in fact, true. It’s we who depend absolutely on the incredible generosity and healing power of the Earth.