For those of you not initiated into the delights of the damson, let me urge you to explore the tart, dense flavour of this fruit. I had never come across damsons until we lived in Cumbria. The Lakes are famous for their damsons. Even in the less sheltered climes of East Cumbria, where we lived, there were damson trees. We were lucky enough to have a tree in our own garden. The first year we were there was a record harvest and I made gallons of damson gin and jars of damson jelly. There’s something so deeply, intensely fruity about the flavour of damsons that is unique. They make ordinary plums seem bland. The rich, purple colour of the cooked fruits just adds to their appeal.
Alas, whatever other delights Edinburgh has to offer, I haven’t seen any damson trees - yet. My damsons were bought from the greengrocer. They ended up in the freezer partly because I’d left them so long in the fridge that I was worried they’d go off, but it’s also a technique for softening the skins so they release their juices into the gin. This is a way of handling sloes for sloe gin, in order to avoid having to prick every single fruit. You’re supposed to pick sloes after the first frost, so the skins have been softened but you can just as easily throw them into the freezer for a while instead.
Somewhere in the move from Cumbria to Edinburgh, I’ve lost my little notebook with records of my various attempts at making fruit liqueurs, preserves or pickles, so unfortunately I don’t have my tried and tested recipe any more. Instead, I’ve used Nigel Slater’s recipe. He’s usually pretty reliable about this kind of thing. He does say you can use damsons or sloes for this recipe. Sloes are so much sourer than damsons, I’d be tempted to put in more sugar but you can always do that later, once you’ve tasted the finished drink.
I got into the habit of leaving the fruit in the gin indefinitely, and just siphoning off the liqueur with a ladle when I wanted it – not the most elegant way of serving an after-dinner drink admittedly. However I read on a website somewhere that after a year, you might spoil the flavour of the liqueur if you leave the fruit in. This still means that once the damson gin is ready (after 2-3 months) you do have about 10 months to get around to straining and bottling it. Surely that’s time enough… ahem. Once strained, the gin will last indefinitely. Unless you drink it of course.
The wonderful thing about damson and sloe gin is that it is so incredibly easy to make and yet gives the impression of ‘domestic goddess’-like skills, especially if you bottle it in some quaint, decorative glass bottles (bought from the not so quaint Ikea!).
By the way, do not ever make champagne cocktails using damson gin, along the lines of a Kir Royale. I have a vague but nonetheless hideously embarrassing memory of trying - and failing miserably - to play the piano for my friends fuelled by damson gin cocktails. Think Les Dawson’s piano playing sketch. Please note, this is not something I would ever try and do sober. At least I didn’t try and sing as well. Or did I…..?
As a bonus, here’s a damson inspired recipe I cobbled together from various ice-cream recipes. I made it once, ages ago and it was delicious. I made it a couple of weeks ago, and it wasn’t quite as good. This was partly because I couldn’t get the ice-cream to set – so it ended up as a sort of very cold damson ripple custard (sorry dinner guests!). I also had extra damson puree which I chucked in and the damson flavour was too dominating. But if, unlike me, you follow the damn recipe, you should be fine.
Damson Gin and White Chocolate Ice Cream
150ml double cream
4 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
200g white chocolate
2-3 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp gin
Put the damsons in a heavy bottomed pan, with a tablespoon of water. On a very low heat, simmer them gently until the skins begin to break and the fruits soften. Leave to cool slightly then push the fruit puree through a sieve. Whilst still warm, stir in 2-3 tbsps sugar and the gin. Taste the puree and add more sugar if necessary. You want a tart puree, but not so much that it puckers your mouth!
Warm the milk and cream in a double boiler or in a bowl over a simmering pan of water. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together, then pour the warmed milk mixture over it, whilst stirring. Return the egg and milk mixture into the double boiler, and cook gently until the custard thickens. Meanwhile, melt the white chocolate and leave to cool slightly, then stir it into the custard. Leave to cool.
Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream maker. Or, to use the freezer method, remove the freezing mixture every 30-40 mins from the freezer, as it is just beginning to freeze around the edges and stirring to prevent ice crystals forming. When the ice cream is frozen, but still soft, layer it in a suitable Tupperware bowl with the 2 thin layers of damson puree (so you have 3 ice cream layers around 2 fruit puree layers). Then use a skewer to ‘ripple’ the puree through the ice cream. Freeze.