Tortured by damsons

Yesterday belonged to Storm Francis which, following so quickly behind Storm Ellen, raged about us with intermittent heavy rain and shed-busting gusts. It’s impossible not to feel just a bit excited in the thick of a storm but maybe it’s easier when you know that your allotment is sheltered from South Westerly storms when the lucky ones at the top of the site who grab all the sunshine and only half of the frosts are getting the full force of the weather. When the rain eased for an hour we went up to see how things were, and I couldn’t resist making this short video of an old cherry tree being battered by the wind – it gives some impression of it at least.

However, that wasn’t the highlight of the day at all because just when I thought it was safe to sit down and watch the rain running down the windows we were given a bag of ripe damsons that looked as if they needed some instant attention. Now I love damsons – however they’re cooked. We make damson jam, damson vodka – there’s about a gallon of it maturing in a cupboard waiting to see if we’ll start drinking alcohol again – there’s damson chutney which is delicious and the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten was some home made …… need I go on. Why I am so passionate about the damson is a mystery except that I think my Granny used to make it using damsons from their orchard. They also had greengages which also make the loveliest and most fragrant jam, but however the obsession began, it’s never gone away. We haven’t got any damson trees on the allotment. We didn’t plant any four years ago because they can take 15 years to come into full fruit; but we have friends who, in normal times, would let us pick a few pounds of fruit from their trees, but these aren’t normal times and visits are out of the question. So damson jam suddenly became a possibility even though we’re on a very low carb diet and can’t eat it.

You wouldn’t think, after three weeks of successfully and painlessly avoiding bread and sugar and all things carbohydrate, that it could be so challenging to make five pounds of jam for the store cupboard -but it was.

What follows is hardly a recipe, possibly an entirely new form of psycho-recipe, since a list of actions and ingredients hardly does justice to the damson. The biggest problem is getting rid of the stones. Almost all the books tell you to remove the stones before you cook them. That’s just about the daftest idea ever and I don’t believe for a moment that anyone would sit and stone a big bag of damsons. Although they’re a kind of plum, ripe plums will release their stones far more easily than damsons will. Damson stones can only be removed with a great chunk of lovely flavourful flesh, so I cook them down until they’re just soft; give them a bit of a pummel with a potato masher to loosen the stones from the flesh and then take out the stones with a skimmer, leaving the maximum quantity of flesh in the pan. Don’t, though, be tempted to sieve the stones out because those gorgeous whole skins are a huge part of the aesthetic of the jam. They furl like dark leaves in the finished jam which, with a bit of luck, will be all the clearer for your trouble when you spread it on a slice of bread.

The jam

In, then with the sugar. You might be tempted to use raw sugar, but really I prefer refined cane sugar to let the maximum flavour come through, and then bring it to the boil stirring all the time to stop it from catching. Then you chuck a knob of butter on to deter scum from forming and boil it until it gets to setting temperature or wrinkles on a cold plate – whatever. Yesterday the boil brought to mind Homer’s often used line about the wine dark sea. As the pan seethed and bubbled, the wind and rain shook the Potwell Inn windows and howled through the cracks, and the jam – which is the colour of rich burgundy – moved like a troubled sea in my imagination. But like Odysseus, tied to the mast to escape the temptations of the Sirens, I was adamantine in my determination not even to taste the forbidden fruit, except when the murderously hot jam bubbled and splashed on to my arms and hands, and the only way I could ease the pain was to lick it off. In fact I had to move closer to the pan to make sure I had plenty of occasions to do so.

Once the jam was finished and bottled I scraped every possible morsel into the last jar when Madame appeared and grabbed the wooden spoon – I have the photo to prove it. And all the while I was cooking, my heart was broken at the lack of a loaf of everyday sourdough – also off the list – and a lump of butter and a slathering of damson jam which would amount to half a day’s allowance blown in a moment of madness. Madame, however smirked as she licked the spoon into the unprecedented whiteness of a gull’s bone left on the seashore of the wine dark sea.

That’s what I mean about recipes and cooking – there’s always more going on than meets the eye. If you have a mind to, you could read William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say” – I’ve always loved it. I’d print it here, but writers and their descendents deserve their royalties – I don’t know of many rich poets. I do know a blogger, though, who’s lost more than half a stone – which didn’t come from a damson. I’ll escape the clutches of the diabetes nurse and her threatened medications yet!

When “just too much” is a moral problem

So today turned out to be something of a day of reckoning in the Potwell Inn pantry, largely on account of the large batch of ragu I cooked yesterday.  It had to be frozen in individual batches today, but our little freezer was stuffed to capacity – not least with 12lbs blackcurrants that went in there when we were too busy to do anything with them. Fridges and freezers can very easily become the slow -food equivalent of the dustbin if you’re not ruthless, and I’m not nearly ruthless enough.

But that brought around another challenge; what should we do with the defrosting blackberries?  Easy-peasy we thought, we’ll make some cordial and some jam.  The elderflower cordial we made in the summer is beginning to run low and in any case the flavour diminishes the longer it’s in a bottle. Already it’s a shadow of the glorious scent of early summer that it possessed when we made it. So what better than blackcurrant cordial for the winter, all that vitamin C to fight off colds.  But then that left six pounds to make jam with, and when I counted our empty jam jars there were just six and I needed at least twice that. The easy thing to do would be to go and buy some more, but I knew there were quite a number of full jars of jams and chutneys being stored in the garage, some of them quite old. Cue head torch and a stumble around in the chaos of a garage repurposed as a dump for yet more things we don’t quite know what to do with since we moved here 3 years ago.  I found 20 jars of various substances some without labels, some with the contents shrunk by 25% and some whose once pristine lids were spotted with rust. Initially, when I got them up 3 flights of stairs to the flat I opened each one and tasted it.  Some were flat-out gone, in some the sugar had granulated out leaving crunchy bits and all of them were, like the elderflower cordial, diminished in flavour. In the end I spooned all the contents into the bin and shoved them into the dishwasher to be cleaned and sterilized. Sadly one of the more recent casualties was some 2016 marmalade which we’ve run out of altogether so we can’t make any more until the Seville oranges come in January.  The most venerable was a jar of 2009 jam that was still edible but devoid of any identifying taste. It was supposed to be gooseberry.

This is a constant problem for most of us in this situation.We wouldn’t be gardeners at all if we didn’t want to eat the things we grow, but the fruit grows generously every year and it’s all too easy to try to use every bit of it up. Freezers and jam making cost money and in truth it would be much better to give the surplus away to someone who can use it. The same kind of argument goes for many of the other things we grow, it all comes in at once and we go into surplus in a matter of a few days.  This is all the more reason for researching the heritage varieties in favour of the F1 hybrids.  What’s the point of having a huge crop all at once when what you need is to have it spread out so you can eat fresh every day for a few weeks.  Today our thriftiness began to feel more like selfishness; twenty pots of jam and chutney that could have fed someone else if we hadn’t instinctively hoarded them again a rainy day that never came. Who’d have thought that making a batch of ragu could expose a moral dilemma?

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