“Urm, what have you got us into?” asked Nick, staring through the fading light at the boxes of damsons piled up against our weather-worn front door. Tired, we’d just returned home after a manic weekend at Ludlow Food Festival.
I just grinned. I’m not sure what it is about damsons, but every time I see one, smell one – or even better – taste one, it’s like a wave of delight washing over me. Silly, I know.
The damsons had been picked and delivered by John and Linda, from Uncllys Farm (also the home of the Wyre Community Land Trust). I was unaware at that point that there would be more coming, thankfully so was Nick…
The West Midlands and Cumbria are two of the main damson producing areas in the British Isles, both today and historically. It was in Cumbria that I first discovered this beautiful fruit. We were lucky enough to have access to a couple of trees that had grown out of an old hedge line and it was with those damsons that I first tried out recipes such as damson ketchup, damson gin, damson syrup, damson chutney from my most treasured recipe book (i) by Victoria Barratt.
When we moved to the Wyre Forest, I was over-joyed to discover that we had two small Shropshire Prune (aka damson) trees in our garden and another further into the woods. The quantity I can pick from these trees is limited, so I was thrilled to find out that John and Linda (other forest folk) had a bountiful supply. Now I just had to decide what to make with them all…
“No, it’s a traditional damson cheese,” I replied.
This needs a little more explanation. A damson cheese is a thick, preserve, not dissimilar to the Spanish membillo, or quince paste, that is served with cheese. It is made entirely from damson pulp and sugar – not cheese. There are two possible explanations for the name:
- Its texture means that it can be cut like a cheese.
- It was originally served instead of the cheese course at a dinner.
Either way, the bitter-sweetness of the damsons make damson cheese an ideal partner for meats like duck, lamb or venison, much like you would have cranberries with turkey or apples with pork. It also sits beautifully on a cheese board alongside a gooey Camembert or a rich blue cheese.
There are references for damson cheese, or similar products by another name, stretching back to 1604 (ii). The recipe I use is from Recipes from History: Damsons (iii), which is based on a recipe from 1777. However, what sparked my interest in the chocolate cake-like damson cheese was a passage by Dorothy Hartley (iv):
Damson cheese is one of the oldest country recipes. The cheese, if properly made, is almost black, cutting a deep purple, and should keep for years…The cheeses were sometimes poured out onto deep old dinner plates and after some days in a dry store cupboard, were turned out and stacked one atop the other with spice and bay leaved between…such an old damson cheese was a foot high, a foot across and quite hard.
Now I haven’t quite achieved the dimensions mentioned by Dorothy Hartley, but the idea is there. Maybe next year when I have a few more dinner plates…
Damson Products Available from The Copper Pot
- Mini damson cheese.
- Damson syrup.
- Damson cordial.
- Damson recipe book.
All of the damson products are made from damsons sourced locally from the Wyre Forest, primarily from Uncllys Farm.
i A Taste of Damsons: from Jelly to Gin (1997) by Victoria Barratt, published by Westmorland Damson Association.
ii Recipe for ‘Plum Cakes’ in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book (1986) by Hilary Spurling, published by Viking Salamander.
iii Recipes from History: Damsons (2012) by Nick Trustram Eve and Suzi Richer, published by The Copper Pot.
iv p.434-5 in Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food that Makes Us Who We Are (2009) by Dorothy Hartley, published by Piatkus.