[NAFEX] interesting article from England about damson plums

Brungardt, Sam Sam.Brungardt at state.mn.us
Mon Apr 18 09:44:55 EDT 2005

(from the London Daily Telegraph)
A plum job bears fruit
(Filed: 16/04/2005)

Hard work and culinary creativity are putting damsons back on the table. Anthony Gardner reports

A few years ago, this article would have been titled "Damson in distress".  It would have recounted how, in the Lyth Valley of Cumbria, production of a once-cherished fruit had tumbled to an all-time low as fragile old trees gave up the ghost and newcomers failed to replant them.

Tree of hearts: damsons have a unique flavour that goes well with pork, game and other meats

Head-shaking farmers would have explained that, with the greengrocers they traditionally supplied being forced out of business by supermarkets, there was no longer enough demand to justify the wearisome business of hand-picking the fruit from a teetering ladder.

To some extent, these difficulties still apply, but there is no doubt that the damson is making a spirited fight back.  Today, more than 2,000 people are expected to converge on the Lyth Valley to celebrate Damson Day, an annual fair organised by the Westmorland Damson Association (WDA).  Now in its eighth year, the fair offers the chance to feast your eyes on trees famous for their blossom, and your stomach on everything from steak-and-damson pie, to damson bread, gin, syrups and chocolates.

As well as being put to new uses, damsons are riding the wave of enthusiasm for seasonal produce.  Rick Stein, who describes the fruit as "one of the most useful members of the plum family, combining tartness and sweetness in a very satisfying way", featured the Lyth Valley Damson Day in his Food Heroes television series, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall includes a recipe for damson "jampote" in The River Cottage Cookbook.

The WDA has much to be congratulated on.  Set up in 1996, it has reminded local people of the versatility of the fruit, encouraging new products.  This, in turn, encourages the planting of new trees, something that Lord Cavendish, who promotes damsons at his Holker Hall farm shop, describes as "a virtuous circle".

At the post office in Crosthwaite, you can not only lick stamps but damson ice-cream, too, and stock up on beer, wine, chutney and gumbo.  "None of these things was available when we first came here," says the postmistress, Valerie Harrison.  "It's all since the WDA started up."

"Damsons weren't high profile," agrees Victoria Barratt, whose cookbook A Taste of Damsons contains recipes for everything from damson soufflé to damson ketchup.  "People had become quite disheartened and a lot of orchards were in disrepair." 

It was a WDA meeting that inspired her to start a business making damson gin and brought her together with her husband, Oliver. 

"I didn't have enough room, just working on the kitchen table of my terraced house in Kendal, so I had to marry him," she explains, sitting in the sunny, damson-filled garden of Oliver's family home, Cowmire Hall. 

"We produced 420 bottles in the first year, sticking the labels on by hand and melting the plastic tops with a hairdryer."  Production is now up to 6,000 bottles a year and Cowmire [Sam's note: is this anything like cowflop or cowpie?  Geez, what a name!  Makes me want to order a case.]  Hall Damson Gin can be found in Fortnum & Mason, the House of Bruar in Perthshire, Scotland, and at Rick Stein's delicatessen in Padstow.

Meanwhile, along the valley at Savin Hill Farm, the Partingtons have been devising ways of combining the fruit with meat from their traditional and rare breeds of cattle and pigs.  Their steak and damson pie, made with British White beef, helped them to the finals of the Waitrose Small Producer of the Year competition.  The family's damson-embellished Middle White pork pies have also been very successful.

"Damsons have a unique taste," says Michelle Partington, "and there's a tartness about them that goes well with meat, particularly pork and game."

While the WDA looks for methods of distributing the valley's products outside the region, the best way of enjoying them is to visit the area - Bowland Bridge Post Office's damson vinegar is worth the trip alone.  To help you along, Michelle Partington has come up with the Lakeland Picnic, a basket of local delights to be consumed en route, like the gourmet equivalent of a museum audio guide.

So is there no disadvantage to this miracle fruit? Michelle Partington can only think of one. "Watch your jacket," she says, proffering a spoonful of exquisite bottled damsons. "They stain everything."

*	The Damson Day fair at Low Farm near Kendal takes place today from 10.30am to 4.30pm (admission £2 adults, free for children). 
*	Westmorland Damson Association: 015395 68246; www.lythdamsons.org.uk. 
*	A leaflet on exploring damson country is available from LEADER+ (Cumbria Fells and Dales): 01768 869533. 
*	Holker Hall: 015395 58328. Crosthwaite Post Office: 015395 68201. 
*	Cowmire Hall damson gin: 015395 68200. 
*	Bowland Bridge Post Office: 015395 68643. 
*	Lakeland Picnics for two people cost £30 and are available from Savin Hill (015395 68410). 

Damson delights
Spiced damson, smoked chicken and smoked ham salad 
Medallions of venison with damsons 
Stir-fried vegetables in damson vinegar 
Damson and banana pie 
Vanilla ice cream with bottled damsons 
Damson and apple jam 
One part damson gin to three parts lemonade. Chill and serve with slices of lemon, cucumber, apple, mint and ice

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