The Last of the Damsons

The day before we returned from our trip up the Caldon Canal, the Captain and I discovered yet another tree groaning with yet more damsons.  I utterly failed in walking on by.  Or even boating on by.

I have done many things with damsons so far.  Gin, chutney, jams, pies.  I kept thinking they were rare.  Every time I saw them my heart was thrilled.  It has taken me till now to realise that at least around here, they are two a penny.  Common as muck.  All over the place.  That does not make them any less wonderful.  There really is something very special about seeing the blue-black fruits dripping from the branches.

Having studied the photo below, which came to me via twitter but I can not remember from whom so apologies for not attributing, the damsons I am finding are Shropshire Prunes:

They are tart, juicy and delicious.  And no one seems to pick them!  Bizarre.

The tree that called to the Captain and I was just south of Stone on the Trent and Mersey.  We had just come down through Aston lock and moored temporarily while we spent ten minutes picking.  In that time we filled a carrier bag and ended up with three kilos.  I washed, sorted and then froze them on our return home as I did not have time to deal with them initially.

It was not until this weekend that I finally got around to making the following damson jam.  It is unusual because it contains balsamic vinegar, remains sweet and yet has less sugar than most jams.  And you do not have to bother with all the boiling until setting point malarkey.  Bit of a winner in my book.

Balsamic Damson Preserve

3kg ripe damsons, frozen

500g soft brown sugar

250ml balsamic vinegar

1tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

grated zest of 1 lemon

80g dried apricots, finely chopped

Place all ingredients in preserving pan and leave for several hours while damsons defrost.  When thoroughly thawed, stir well and heat slowly stirring until sugar dissolved.  Simmer uncovered over low heat, stirring occasionally for 5-6 hours.  It needs to be thick enough to leave expose the base of the pan when a spoon is drawn across it for a few seconds.  At some point during the process, while the mixture is still very liquid, remove the damson stones, either with a slotted spoon or simply sieve it.  Once the desired consistency is reached, pour into sterilised jars and seal.


Taking a Leek and plugging Forager’s Friend

Bad joke, I know, but when you travel up the Leek arm of the Caldon Canal and it rains as soon as you pull in to moor, there are only bad jokes to crack.

We’ve made some distance since Tixall Wide and have left both the Staffs & Worcester and the Trent & Mersey way behind.  The number of heavily laden crab apple trees we have seen has been immense.  It is quite beyond me to tackle them at the moment.  Besides which, a lovely friend of mine raided her neighbour’s John Downie crab apple tree and brought me round thirteen kilos just the other week, so I am a bit sated with the whole crab apple experience.  I made jelly, cheese, butter and experimented with a batch of John Downie Brandy.

The proof of that will be in the drinking many months from now.  In the meantime, the best and perhaps most surprising success, to my mind at least, was the whole pickled crab apples.  Absolutely amazing!  I had a few that I could not quite squeeze into a jar so we had them for tea with sausages, mashed potato and a good onion gravy.  Yum.  I shall post the recipe at the end of this post.

I have been keeping my eyes peeled for sloes this trip.  For while I have a sneaking suspicion that I prefer Damson Gin to Sloe Gin, I feel further extensive research is required.  However, I am finding them somewhat illusive.  I can find damsons a plenty.  But if I buy any more cheap supermarket gin someone is going to alert the authorities and my photo will be circulated to all stores nationwide.  I have enough in stock for some sloe gin but I.  Must.  Not.  Buy.  Any.  More.

The Capt perfecting the boat hook technique

So, today we had damson pie.  Actually it was damson and cherry plum pie.  I am amazed these weeny plums are still fruiting.  I first picked these when we were on the Droitwich Canal at the beginning of July, and yet here we are in the middle of September and still the bright yellow and shiny red ones are around.  They are deliciously sweet and offset the tartness of the damsons perfectly.  I have no photo of our pie.  It was an aesthetic disaster.  I am not good with pastry.  Hot hands.  Plus, I had to roll it out with an empty gin bottle as I have no rolling-pin.  Which probably did not help.  Still, it tasted good.

Damsons & Cherry Plums before they were subjected to my pastry

This trip has been undoubtedly enhanced by discovering the little button on my Forager’s Friend iPhone app that pin points exactly where I am.  Marvellous.  It has always been there.  Only I am too much of a numpty to have noticed it.  Now, when I make a discovery, I can enter it immediately.  I love this app so much, but the website is excellent too.  The makers contacted me on Twitter and asked if I had any suggestions for enhancements.  I put in a request for more canal/towpath information to make it more user-friendly for those of us on the waterways.  But even without canal names and lock numbers, it is still a fabulous resource for any forager, with or without an iPhone.

Anyway, enough.  Time for a recipe:

Sweet Pickled Crab Apples

1kg crab apples

300ml cider vinegar

400g granulated sugar

25g root ginger, bruised

1tsp allspice berries

5cm piece cinnamon

1tsp cloves

Prick the crab apples all over with a needle or skewer to prevent the skins bursting.  Put the vinegar, sugar, ginger, allspice and cinnamon in a pan and heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.  Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer.  Add the apples and cloves.  Simmer gently until apples soft but not mushy.  Remove with a slotted spoon and pack into warm, sterilised jars.  Bring vinegar syrup to the boil and boil for 5 mins.  Strain over apples.  Cover with vinegar proof lids.  Leave for 1 month before eating.  Use within one year.

Tixall Wide

We were not meant to stop here.  I cannot remember why now.  It is usually very busy but last night we ran out of day light and so far this morning I have not stuck my head out of the hatch to see how many neighbours we have.

Light beginning to fade before we arrived at Tixall Wide

That said, I do like Tixall Wide.  I like the way it has pretensions.  It is astonishing to think that when it was built the landowners insisted that it was ‘improved’ to make the view from the house more pleasing.  They did not want an industrial eye sore spoiling their breakfast.  Consequently, it looks more like a lake than a canal.  But the navvies that had their workload more than doubled and sweated to build this by hand, had the last laugh.  Nothing remains of the house but the gatehouse.  The working man’s toil has outlasted the aristocrat’s place of ease.  Some justice in that, I think.

Photo of Tixall Wide from April last year

Thanks to the will-I-won’t-I-be-going-into-hospital dilemma, this week away has been very badly planned with the decision to go only being taken on Wednesday.  In some ways, it is easier to be less than 100% here than at home.  I remain on ‘light duties’ when it comes to locking with the Captain gallantly single handing several yesterday.  He has even taken on the foraging which really is above and beyond the call!  As we were waiting to go through the very pretty lock at Gailey, he brought me a handful of damsons and asked for a bag.

Gailey Roundhouse, delightful canal shop here

I then stood at the foot of the heavily laden tree while he scrambled up and shook its branches.  The very ripe fruit positively leapt off with squeals of delight at being discovered.  We ended up with 1.35kg in less than ten minutes.  The tree is just by the BW rubbish point at the lock landings.  I am not sure what I will be doing with them so for now, they are in the freezer compartment of the fridge.  I did not bring my preserving pan with me.  Shocking, I know, but I do not have the energy for jamming.  I am tempted to make more damson gin but I do not want to use up all my gin supplies as I am hoping for an abundance of sloes on this trip.  Perhaps a damson pie is in order?

It breaks my heart to see so much fruit just going to waste.  There are schemes popping up to try to rectify that.  In Birmingham, there is Urban Harvest and Fruitshare is a nationwide scheme.  I am sure there are others.  I find it difficult to leave fruit when I can see it is just going to rot, but there is only so much one person can do!

No recipes in this post, at least not directly.  But I will tell you about the delicious  Mary Berry Lemon Drizzle Cake I made.  It is a special cake. It is a cake that can change the world.

The recipe is here and you can read how my lovely friend Joy used its delicious lemony power.  I, on the other hand, just ate it 🙂


Towpath Chutney

Today is one of those days to glory in the delights of boating.

I have taken up my customary position at the pointy end (see pic below!), am basking in the August sunshine, which is English summer day perfect (beautifully sunny with enough chill to need long sleeves), and admiring the Captain as he sweats his way up the Huddersfield Narrow locks. As I sip my freshly brewed coffee, I cannot help but reflect that whoever first decided to build a canal that crossed the Pennines must have been mad as a box of ferrets. But, by ‘eck, I’m glad tha did, lad! It’s simply stunning. Quite the loveliest canal we’ve travelled. Ok, so the locks leak, the pounds are shallow, the foraging has been woeful, but even so.

I’ve walked several miles of towpath setting locks, searching for edibles, admiring views but if truth be told I’m rather glad to have a day when all there is to do is to take it all in. When we get back home, I’ll upload some of the Captain’s photos and you’ll see what I mean.

There was one exciting foraging moment. While waiting to enter a lock, we found a small patch of bilberries on the opposite side from the towpath. Quite unreachable without a boat and only enough for the smallest of small snacklets. Hurrah for boaty foraging!

Yesterday was a serious galley day. Among other things I turned the apples, pears and damsons into a very pleasing chutney. We tried some today for lunch and while it will no doubt improve with keeping, it really was very good!

I adapted a recipe of Pam Corbin’s, but I’m sure she won’t mind 😉 To be true to my version, you should gather your pears and damsons from the Calder & Hebble Canal while your apples should come from the New Junction Canal. Good luck with that!

Towpath Chutney

1kg damsons, quartered and stoned

750g pears, peeled, cored and diced

750g apples, peeled, cored and diced

500g onions, finely chopped (mix of red and white)

250g raisins

500g demerara sugar

600ml cider vinegar

1/2 tsp salt

For the spice bag:

50g fresh root ginger, bruised

2 tsp mustard seeds

2 tsp black peppercorns

Make your spice bag by tying up the spices into a 20cm square of muslin. Place in preserving pan with all the other ingredients and bring very slowly to the boil. Stir occasionally. Simmer uncovered for as long as possible until chutney thick – about 3 hours. Pour into warm sterilised jars and seal. Leave to mature for a couple of months if you can!