‘Few trees offer such delicate bloom or as charming a fruit, dangling from the tree’s fine twigs in early autumn like dusty, violet-black bonbons.’ Nigel Slater (1)
Damsons are traditionally harvested around Michaelmas, which falls on 29 September, but this summer’s intense, prolonged heat means our fruit is ripe a month earlier than usual.
The damson was brought to Britain by the Romans and widely grown in medieval monastery gardens. Like damask silk, its name comes from the Syrian city of Damascus, the
fruit’s probable place of origin.
Some of the trees growing in our Waterfurlong hedgerows may well be descendants of damsons planted by the Austin friars. In his Grete Herball of 1526 Peter Treveris mentions ‘damaske or damasson plums’ and in 1575 horticulturalist Leonard Mascall claimed the damson to be the best kind of plum and advised drying the ripe fruit in the sun or a hot bread oven to store over winter. Perhaps this was another use for Bradcroft’s furna?
The seventeenth century saw the introduction of many sweet eating plum varieties from continental Europe and these were given pride of place in English orchards, alongside the apples, pears and cherries. Farmers relegated what Monty Don describes as ‘the delectable but scruffy’ damson to their hedgerows, alongside bullaces, crab-apples, cherry plums and sloes. Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica(3) writes that in parts of Lincolnshire farmers continue to plant both damsons and, surprisingly, rhubarb in their hedgerows to provide small but useful cash crops. Although Stamford has never been a major plum or damson producer, the trees certainly enjoy our fertile clay loam and John Clare mentioned them in his poem The Ladybird.(4)
Damsons had long been used domestically for rich, intense confections like damson cheese, described by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as ‘a fruit preserve so intensely cooked that it sets to an almost solid, fudge-like consistency that can be cut with a knife.’In 1954 the social historian Dorothy
Hartley wrote of ‘damson cheese, crimson in a pool of port wine on a gold-washed dish’(5). However, the damson's heyday came in Victorian times when cheap imported sugar from the colonies led to the commercial jam-making industry. The heavy-cropping damson was planted on a large scale around Kendal in the Lake District and in Shropshire. Closer to home, the villages of Colne, Somersham and Bluntisham near Huntingdon had extensive damson and plum orchards to supply the nearby Chivers jam factory.
Before the advent of artificial dyes, damsons were also in heavy demand by the textile industry. Market Drayton in Shropshire was famous for its annual Damson Fair, where Lancashire mill owners would buy the fruit to make dye for their cotton and woollen cloth. Daiv Sizer writes ‘The colour varied according to the mordant (fixing agent) used. For example, ammonia turned the cloth green and army uniforms in WWI were dyed khaki with damsons... Katherine Swift in her book The Morville Hours: the Story of a Garden writes how soldiers “marched off to Gallipoli and The Somme with the khaki of Shropshire damsons on their backs.”’(6)
Ludlow was once a major centre of glove-making and damson trees were planted in great number in the surrounding countryside to make dye for the soft leather. Damsons provided dye for the Kidderminster carpet industry and in Pattingham near Wolverhampton were grown to colour sugar-bags blue.
The area to the west of Dunstable in Bedfordshire was once famed for its miles of damson orchards. The skins were used to make blue-grey dye for RAF uniforms in WWII and for the Luton hat trade. Aylesbury ducks and geese grazed under the trees, the fruit being known locally as Aylesbury Prune.
Just as fast as the damson trade burgeoned, it ceased. Not only were natural dyes replaced by synthetic substitutes but the sugar and labour shortages of WWII led to huge cut-backs in jam production.
Today damsons are enjoying something of a revival as a connoisseur fruit and old varieties like Blue Violet, Dalyrymple and Dittisham Black are being tracked down and reintroduced.
In France damsons are known as prunes de damas and are surprisingly unpopular, with the exception of Alsace, where a number of distillers make Quetsch, a damson-flavoured eau de vie.
PLUM, DAMSON, CHERRY PLUM, BULLACE or SLOE?
Listed in descending order of size, these plum-like fruits or 'drupes' can be confusing to distinguish from one-another.
Damsons and cherry plums (mirabelle in French) are both believed to descend from the smaller, tarter, rounder, wild bullace (prunus institia). Dessert plums and gages (which are simply green or yellow-skinned plums) are thought to derive from a later cross between the cherry plum and the sloe (prunus spinosa) and are classed as prunus domestica. The damson tree is generally smaller and laxer in habit than the plum; the fruits are oval, generally too bitter to eat raw, with a blackish-purple skin, described by Richard Mabey as having a ‘frost-at-midnight’ bloom (7).
Read more about growing and cooking with damsons in Daiv Sizer’s comprehensive online Guide To Damsons (6).
Lyveden New Bield, a National Trust property near Oundle, is establishing a collection of old damsons in its restored Thomas Tresham orchard, which features trees grown in Elizabethan times.
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:
(1) Tender: Volume II - A Cook’s Guide to the Fruit Garden © Copyright Nigel Slater, Fourth Esate, 2010
(2) Adam Bede by George Eliot, London, 1859
(3) Flora Britannica © Copyright Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 1996
(4) The Ladybird by John Clare (1793 - 1864)
(5) Food in England by Dorothy Hartley, London, 1954
(6) Guide to Damsons, online resource from Daiv Sizer, www.daiv.co.uk
(7) Wild Cooking © Richard Mabey, Vintage, 2009
With grateful thanks and acknowledgements to Christopher Stocks for information in his book Forgotten Fruits, Random House, 2008
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018