Somehow I forgot to prune my funny spindly little damson tree in the middle of the vegetable garden this year. But it wasn’t until I realised that the towering branches were bent over double under the weight of fruit so that half of my veg were getting no sunlight at all that I decided to take matters in hand. In a rather extreme form of harvesting, I lopped off great mounds of offending branches and stripped them of their fruit – more than 20 kilos of the stuff. Now all I can hope is that the tree will survive my ministrations and continue providing me with these lovely tart little plums in years to come.
In other years, I have driven myself almost to distraction chopping the stones out of my damsons before cooking them. But in other years, I wasn’t dealing with such vast quantities of fruit. Also, this year I picked the fruit very early, to ensure that the maximum possible amount of pectin remained in the not-quite-mature damsons, making stone-removal even more unthinkable as the damson flesh was still well attached to the stones.
I know from bitter experience that all the old wives’ tales along the lines of slash them through the middle and the stones will come loose and float to the top as you cook are complete rubbish: they don’t. So this year I resorted to a colander. The end result is smoother than I usually like, with no nice lumps of fruit suspended in the jam. On the other hand, it’s rougher than jelly… and far far quicker and less painful than any other method. From now on, I shall stick with my colander.
Damsons – 5 kg
Sugar – 2 kg
Water – 1.5 l
Lemons – 2
Place the fruit in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or maslin pan with the water , bring it to the boil and then turn the heat right down and cook it slowly until the damsons are very soft – about one hour. Ladle the squishy fruit gradually into a colander suspended over a bowl, and use a flexible plastic spatula to push the pulp through the holes and into the bowl. As they accumulate, dispose of the stones and any of the flesh that just won’t go through the holes. This process will produce a thin, uniform pulp: the finished jam will turn out less interestingly lumpy, but this loss is more than compensated for in the time gained by sieving rather than removing the stones one by one. At the end of this process you should have about 5 litres of pulp.
Quarter the lemons, which should be unwaxed and well washed.
Put the damson pulp back into the pan, add the lemon pieces and bring it slowly back to the boil. When it’s bubbling, add the sugar and mix it in well. When the jam has returned to a gentle boil, adjust the heat in order to keep it bubbling, but not too vigorously. The less you stir the better, though you will need to move the fruit from time to time to check that it’s not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
If you have used underripe fruit, it should set fairly quickly; the high pectin levels of the added citrus will help the process along too. In fact, you may produce as much as 4 kg of jam. If, on the other hand, the fruit was very ripe, the process will take longer and the result will be around 3.5 kg of jam. You’ll know when it’s ready either when your jam thermometre tells you that the mixture has reached gelling point (105 degrees at sea level, slightly less as you go higher) and bubbled there for a minute or two, or when a little jam dropped on a saucer and allowed to cool is sufficiently set that the two halves don’t run straight back together when you draw your finger through the middle
Put the jam into sterilised jars (see here for how to sterilise jars), close them tightly and store in a cool dark place.
© Anne Hanley, 2011