Our damson tree has never been so laden with powdery blue fruits and this year they’ve clumped together like bunches of giant, velvety grapes. Clusters and clusters of them all over the tree. I’m planning to make spiced damson chutney and damson gin but these are barely enough to make dent and so this year there has been jam too – a caramelised boozy jam of damsons and port.
Fingers crossed, this is our last year in our current house (probably, you know how these house moves go – nothing is certain until you get the keys). This also means that it is our last year in our current garden and so I’m especially determined to make good use of our plum, damson and apple trees. I’m a big fan of using freezer compotes as a low sugar way to preserve fruit, but with three fruit trees and one small freezer I’ve had to branch out.
Jam needs its high sugar content to make sure that the jam sets properly and doesn’t spoil and go mouldy in the jar. Theoretically you can use a little less sugar in damson jam compared with other fruit jams because of the damson’s high pectin content (it should set at a lower concentration), but we’re not talking about eating half the jar as one of your ‘five a day’ here so to my mind what’s more important is a successful afternoon in the kitchen. Damsons (and plums) are a great place to start out in jam making by the way because of the aforementioned high pectin content – they’re more than likely to set unlike some fussier preserves like strawberry.
My jam is a chunky full fruit preserve which contains the fruit skin but I have also made a batch of a smoother, jelly-esque damson jam. If you’d like to try the smooth variety you can remove the fruit skin and the stones together in one clever step, bypassing the need to stone the damsons by hand. Boil the fruit and water as per my recipe but before you add the sugar press the fruit through a metal colander, thus retaining the stones and any big bits of fruit. This bit of kitchen genius comes strangely from unruly haired Mayor of London, Boris Johnson who is also quite right in his promotion of jam making as a unisex activity. “If women can go to work and suffer the curse of ambition, then we men are entitled to the restful consolations of jam-making”.
The damsons go through a riot of colours before settling at a deep, rich burgundy that is nothing like the yellow of the fruit’s flesh or the blue outer. Having made the jam the boy and I were impatient to try it out the next morning but the end slices of our supermarket granary just didn’t seem proper and so we whisked up a batch of Heidi Swanson’s Easy Little Bread Recipe from 101 Cookbooks. Its short, dense slices would be hopeless for making a sandwich but this slightly sweet, oaten bread was probably designed with homemade jam and a smudge of butter in mind. And as the title suggests the recipe is really very easy.
Recipe for Damson and Port Jam
For jam troubleshooting and reassurance, check out Delia’s Ten steps to jam-making. I use the plate method she describes for checking for a set but you can also use a thermometer. You’ll also need to sterilise some jars (this quantity made 6 standard jam jars for me).
1500g damsons(after washing and destining)
1200g golden caster sugar
75ml port, added at the end
Wash the damsons. Quarter each damson and chop out the stone (nobody wants jam that they have to spit out). If you chop each fruit lengthways quickly and without too much prevarication your knife will slide easily down the side of the stone and from there it is easy quarter the fruits and remove the stone.
Put 3 small plates into your freezer ready for testing if the jam is set and start to sterilize your jam jars.
Put the fruit into the pan with 200ml water and simmer for thirty minutes, giving it the occasional stir to ensure even cooking.
Allow the fruit to cool a little. Once the fruit is no longer bubbling, add the sugar and return to a medium heat. After about 10 minutes, check to see if the sugar has dissolved by stirring the jam with a wooden spoon and checking for sugar crystals on the back of the spoon. If you see any crystals, heat for a little longer until there is no sign of the sugar.
Turn the heat up to a rolling boil (a proper spluttering inferno). Once boiling, set your timer for fifteen minutes and move anything valuable out of reach of volcanic purple splatters.
After fifteen minutes have passed, it's time to start testing to see if your jam is ready to set. Get your cold plate from the freezer and pour onto it a teaspoon of jam. Put the plate into the fridge for a few minutes to cool. Retrieve the plate from the fridge and push the end of a teaspoon along the plate and through the jam. If the jam is "set" there will be a slight skin and wrinkle on the surface of the jam as you do this. If the jam doesn't wrinkle but refills the channel made by the end of the spoon keep boiling the jam for another five minutes and test again until set. It’s very variable depending on how hot you get the jam and the composition of the fruit so don’t worry if it takes longer.
Take the jam off the heat and leave to cool for 15 minutes. Now is also the time to stir in the port. If there is any scum on the top of the jam you can remove this by stirring in a small knob of butter.
After 15 minutes ladle the jam into sterilised jars and leave to cool. Label once fully cooled.