Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Musings on dealing with the Great Damson Glut of 2014

We've just finished preserving the last of the 17kg of damsons that our little damson tree has produced and I thought I should record some notes and reminders while it's all fresh in my memory. The tree only fruits prolifically every few years so it’s likely to be some time before we face another week of constant stirring….

I assume that it was this summer’s combination of sunshine and torrential rain that has led to the glut (though I did make up some foul-smelling comfrey plant-feed last summer - which may have helped a bit).

But anyway, in no particular order, here are our conclusions - I've still to add some pics from another camera and the links to the recipes - will get round to it one of these days!

Dealing with the tree / harvesting

The branches that bear the fruit seem to grow very fast and prefer to hang in our next-door neighbour’s garden, so next time we should keep an eye on them regularly from spring and trim them back as necessary.

Don’t forget to take a picture before harvesting any damsons - we now have a much smaller tree than when we started and I wish I’d photographed it with all the branches and fruit still intact so see the difference.

Our technique for harvesting was to combine it with vigorous pruning as the branches were so overladen (particularly those on our neighbour’s side of the fence!). We found the best approach was to prune first and remove the damsons later.

When we collected the first 1kg or so, we discarded unripe fruit from the trimmed branches, assuming that these wouldn’t be usable before they went off. We were completely wrong in this – with later harvestings, we spread the fruit on the kitchen table and it turned ever more purple practically before our eyes. Every time we walked past, the colour seemed darker; ones that had only a bit of a pinky tinge at the start were ripe within a day or two.

I found the most efficient way of choosing which to use was to spread them on the table (which holds about 4kg at a time) and pick out the nicest ones, pulling off any stalks before dropping them into a bowl on the kitchen scales. Every time it reached a kilo, I washed the batch, added them to the cauldron and kept going till I had enough. With the bigger batches, I made a note every time I added a kilo in order to keep track.

What to make

We decided against chutney or jam as both of these would have involved preparing the fruit properly to remove the stones before cooking. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that the stones rise nicely to the top of the pan – they don’t!

This left three easier options: 

Damson cordial (aka ‘Dambena’)
batch 1 – 1.5kg of fruit yielded a litre bottle plus 2 teensy bottles
batch 2 – 4kg of fruit, bottled into 3.25 litres
batch 3 – 5.6kg of fruit*, bottled into about 8 big jars 
(see how we’re becoming less patient as time goes on and want to get it over with as soon as possible)

What’s great about cordial is that it avoids the faff of taking out the stones and also avoids the difficulties of getting something to set (though our first litre did set a little anyway!) as it only needs a couple of minutes of boiling.

This appears to be the big success of this year. Tastes nice diluted with fizzy water from the Sodastream and will also be good on ice cream. I’ve also tried diluting it a bit and freezing it in lolly moulds – not tried them yet though.

And we celibrated the end of the production with damson-flavoured margaritas (along with some very good salsa made to a recipe in a leaflet from Cafe Pacifico that I've just found after misplacing it almost as soon as I'd picked it up a few years ago).

However….we don’t yet know how well the cordial will last (we don’t have room for it all in the fridge and the icehouse is too humid for storing bottles with metal lids), so may have litres of a mouldy brew in a couple of weeks.

I used this recipe [still need to add link]. 

Starting with a small batch allowed us to practise. We bottled this one in a really nice Kilner-style stripey bottle my Mum gave me a few years ago. The last of the cordial went into two teensy little bottles we had of the same type – very cute.

Sainsbury’s had actual Kilner bottles at a reduced price (about £2.25 for a litre and £1.75 for a small one that’s a nice size as a gift) so we got a couple of those, plus a few of their similar own-brand juice bottles at £1.50 each. The second batch all went into these bottles.

For the final batch, we decided to treat it as though it was jam, ie putting it in sterilised jars. We’re hoping this will give it a longish life and can decant it into the nicer bottles as we need it. (We numbered the jars in the order we bottled them, to see if there's any difference in viscosity from top to bottom of the pan; hottest to cooler)

No real lessons in relation to the cordial, except that we tended to adopt a two-stage straining process – colander first, then jelly bag tied into a sieve for support and suspended over a bowl or one of our trusty big ‘chilli pots’ – big enamel pans.

After boiling, it tended to develop a bit of scum that looked like melted strawberry ice cream – we tried to skim this off before bottling – it tastes fine but forms a fairly solid layer at the top of the bottle if left.

Damson Cheese
2.5kg of fruit yielded 2 large glass trays of the final sticky product, decanted into about six or seven plastic boxes

Damson cheese – made to this recipe here [still to add] - also seemed an easy solution but the boiling it up to thicken it took forever. Perhaps I’d used a bit too much water. In the event, I gave up after well over an hour of stirring, turned it off and found it had set by the morning. 

So perhaps this is a useful discovery - that it thickens on its own overnight? Next day, I just heated it gently to turn it liquid again and found that it soon reached the stage of taking a second or two for a path drawn by the spoon to fill back in.
However, it does still seem very sticky – perhaps too sticky – though it tastes nice. In terms of storage, I’ve just put it between baking paper in plastic boxes – again I don’t know how well it will last.

Spiced damson jelly
3.7kg of fruit yielded 2.1 litres of juice before adding sugar and half a bottle of pectin. Made 15.5 jars, totalling perhaps 3 litres

Made to this recipe [still to add link], with the addition of spices – cloves, allspice, cinnamon sticks – as suggested in TheKnit-Nurse Chronicles.

This tastes really nice but the product is still unfinished – for us too, it didn't set properly (despite adding pectin and using our new digital thermometer to confirm - or not, as it turned out - that we’d reached the setting point.)

So we’re going to unseal all the jars and try boiling it up again….

Other odd thoughts
We’d never used preserving sugar - and still haven’t as Sainsbury’s was out of stock. But it sounds like a good idea, as its larger grains make it dissolve more slowly and apparently help prevent sticking as they don't sink to the bottom as fast. It took lots of scrubbing plus hours of boiling up a solution of water and washing up liquid to remove the ‘burnt-on-alite’ (toughest substance known to mankind, we reckon) from the bottom of one of the pans….

We processed 17.3kg in total. By the final day, I was getting sick of the whole process and became very picky... I’d always discarded any damsons with holes (we’d found a single teensy wriggly maggoty thing in the first batch – didn’t find any more but it made me cautious!) and had also discarded ones with strange clear sticky blobs on them (in case they housed an insect!) but had been quite lenient about brown marks on the skin, as we were removing them anyway. 

But for the last 5.6kg batch, I kept only the best ones, and threw about 1.5kg of mostly fairly OK ones in the compost. Added to the discarded unripe ones from the start of the process (perhaps another kilo) and the ones still lying round the base of the tree (perhaps 500g) and the few still out of reach on the tree on a branch not yet trimmed (say 200g), I think the little tree has produced just over 20kg - really hard to believe when looking at it now!

The final damson we harvested was a perfect one and was the last to be dropped into the final cauldron, marking the end of the process…at least until next month, when attention will turn to apples…