On many afternoons recently, I’ve taken an hour or so out, to go for a walk foraging for ingredients. Some days this gives me a headache, as foraging can be a very intense activity and the level of ‘looking’ becomes a bit over the top. It is a brilliant way of discovering things though, when you look that hard you see things you would otherwise miss and find things you didn’t know where there. Foraging is not without its dangers however. I am forever getting my hair tangled in trees, ripping my legs through brambles and wacking my head on low branches when intently focused on something just out of arms reach. It is just too tantalising to go away from the path when you think there might be something to be found ‘off piste’. The other day I came across some windfall wild crab apples that required that I crouch down and crawl on all fours under low lying branches to gather them up to take home. Going forward wasn’t such a problem but backing out with my basket full and a camera round my neck wasn’t quite so easy.
A couple of weeks earlier I’d been to harvest wild damsons, from a place in the forest I’d found the year before so I already had plenty of damsons at home waiting for the jam kettle. One by one, as you clock another crop, you are able to add them to your own personal ordinance survey map of fruits and berries.
I love damsons anyway and the idea of mixing them with the crab apples, both wild fruits together, harvested on my doorstep, seemed a perfect pairing. Damsons can be quite a pain to stone and wild damsons being smaller means there’s even more stones to contend with. Making a fruit cheese is the perfect solution, as both fruits can be cooked with very little in the way of preparation and then be forced through a food mill to leave just the fruit puree and dispense with peel and pips, cores and stones. Though it does require considerable patience I like using a food mill, but last year I found a vintage attachment for my Kenwood Chef on eBay that does the same thing, so now I’m all automated.
Membrillo, made from quince, is probably the most popular fruit cheese, served with the cheese board at the end of a meal, but damsons and crab apples have a particularly appealing Englishness about them. Fruit cheeses are cooked down until they are really thick and will set solid as they cool. This means they can be turned out and served in slices as opposed to dolloped from a spoon. They need to be contained in jars or pots with slightly sloping sides that are wider at the top so they turn out easily. There are small glass jam jars around made for this purpose but I’m really lucky that Martin, in the pottery at Taurus Crafts made me some special hand-thrown stoneware jam pots, inspired by some vintage French ones I own. It is advised that in order to make it easy to turn out the cheese, you lightly oil the ‘moulds’ using ground nut oil or some glycerine if you just happen to have some handy.
CRAB APPLE AND WILD DAMSON CHEESE
Rinse and drain the crab apples. Chop them roughly and place in a pan. Add enough water to just cover the fruit, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes, till cooked through. Remove from the heat, leave to cool then push through a fine seive or food mill over a bowl to remove the skins, cores and pips and leave a smooth puree.
Rinse and drain the damsons, place in a pan and add just enough water to barely cover the fruit. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes, till cooked through and the fruit has burst. Remove from the heat, leave to cool, then push through a sieve or process with a food mill to remove the skins and stones and leave a smooth damson puree.
I combined 800g (1.75lbs) damson puree with 400g (14oz) apple puree, so two thirds damsons to one third apple, but you can change the ratio to suit yourself and the quantities you have available. To every 600g (1.3lbs) fruit add 450g (1lb) sugar. Place the fruit and sugar in a pan and stir over a low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Turn up the heat and bring to the boil then simmer, stirring from time to time to be sure it doesn’t catch and burn on the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until the mixture thickens considerably and when you pull the spoon across the centre it draws a line. This may take and hour or even longer to achieve and it is best to be patient and keep the heat really low under the pan. Pour the mixture into hot sterilised jars that are lightly oiled, cover with greaseproof waxed circles and seal. Leave till set and cold.