Friday September 11th 2009, 4:55 pm

a colander full of damsons

I’m down to my last colander full of damsons. They need using up in the next day or two, otherwise they’ll be over and done with and I hate to waste any of this glorious fruit. I’ve made half a dozen jars of damson chutney, which is already pretty fantastic (if I say so myself) even without its mellowing off period of at least 6 weeks and there’s now several containers full of fruit in the freezer, cooked and stoned to use later.
I always remove the stones from damsons even though it very quickly becomes an arduous job, but it is so worth it after the event. I’ve had several evening sessions of filching these tiny stones out of the cooked fruit by hand, with the pan on my lap whilst watching tv. Here’s a tip; before you plunge your scrupulously clean hands into the pan of squidgy fruity mush, be sure you have chosen your tv channel. The other night I had to decide whether to abandon the stoning in order to get cleaned up to switch channels, or to watch Rambo. I ended up watching an hour of Rambo.

fresh damsons

I need to start some damson gin, so some of the remaining damsons are designated for that. The other day I donated some 2 year old damson gin to my neighbour Steve, to include as part of a hamper he was making up for a friend’s wedding gift. I love to make these things, then don’t get round to drinking them. The deal was that he’d replace the gin so I could start off another batch.
I never bother straining the matured gin off the fruit so wasn’t sure whether this would have had a detrimental effect on the taste. We decided we had better sample it first to be on the safe side, so the two of us stood in his kitchen, sipping and savouring, to see if it would pass muster and discussing the finer points of the flavour. It was like a heavenly nectar with just the slightest hint of almond, which was very lovely indeed. As is the way with fruit containing stones, such as apricots, peaches, cherries and plums, the kernels do have this almondy vibe, and damson stones left to steep in gin for any length of time will likewise imbue this flavour.
In Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book she includes a recipe for Plum Stone Noyeau, a flavouring to use for puddings and cakes made before the advent of almond essence. Basically you steep cracked plum kernels in eau de vie or vodka for several months. I intend to give this a go using my discarded damson stones, though bruising and cracking them with a hammer could prove a particularly dangerous occupation.

cooking damsons and plums

Wednesday September 09th 2009, 4:33 pm

fresh figs in a box

The other day someone twittered something about how in this country we never have enough fresh figs to warrant cooking them and that it is a waste to use them any other way than fresh. When I was writing my jam making book last year, I made fig jam for the very first time. At first I didn’t think that the taste was much to write home about and it did take me a while to key into the subtlety of the flavour, but once I had, I became totally hooked. Fresh figs are really lovely and fig jam is very different but just as lovely, with a slightly earthy, flat but fruity taste. The colour when made into jam is really superb, a rich raspberry pink shade dotted through with tiny seeds. I now only have to think about fig jam and I positively yearn for it.

fresh figs

Possibly this year is an especially good year for them here in the UK. I read something in the local paper about a man in Cheltenham who has had a bumper crop and here at Taurus, Georgie in the pottery presented me with a lovely shallow box full of ripe figs picked from a tree in her garden, which I was thrilled to accept. Two or three of them were overly squidgey so I of course had to eat them immediately, but the rest I have made into jam. As a glut refers to a large quantity, a sea of something that it is almost impossible to cope with and use up before it goes off and is wasted, I have to disagree with the twitterer’s statement, as there is definitely a limit to how many figs can be eaten in time, in their fresh state.
Today, I took a jar of jam to give to Georgie, as a thank you for her gift. She said she had some more figs for me if I want them as they will only rot on the tree otherwise. What a treat.

fig jam setting in a vintage glass jar

Figs are low in pectin, so need a little help to make into jam with a decent set. I prefer a jam with a softish set anyway and I’m not expecting my fig jam to hang around for months in the larder, so the addition of some lemon juice is all that is required. You can use preserving sugar, which has pectin added to it, instead of the regular variety for a thicker set if you prefer.

Fig Jam
Makes 1.5kg (3 1/4lbs)

1kg (2lb 4oz) figs, stalks removed and chopped into 1cm size bits
800g (1lb 12oz) sugar, warmed
juice of 2 lemons

Place the figs in a pan with 4 tablespoons of water and heat gently to release the juices, adding more water if necessary to prevent the fruit catching on the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook through until pink and juicy with the skins soft. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.
Add the sugar and the lemon juice and stir through to help dissolve the sugar, then leave in a covered bowl in a cool place for 12-24 hours.
Prepare your jars (and lids), making sure they are squeaky clean and dry before placing them on their sides in a cool oven for 20 minutes or so before they are required. It is a good idea to place your jam funnel and ladle in the oven as well, so everything you use is hot and sterilised.
Pour the contents of the bowl into a preserving pan and warm through, stirring to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved, before allowing it to reach boiling point. Boil gently to setting point; you can turn up the heat only so long as you watch it very carefully to be sure your precious jam doesn’t burn. Pour into hot jars, cover and seal. Remember to label (not my strong point!).
One of my favourite ways of serving fig jam is on toasted cinnamon and raisin bagels. For some reason this combo is superb. I have photographed it here dolloped onto toasted teacakes. The teacakes served in the cafe, here at Taurus, are always handmade, so they come a pretty close second choice.

fig jam is fab on a toasted teacake