I was at the checkout in Tesco at 9.15am yesterday buying one and half litres of gin. I wasn’t even embarrassed. Okay, I was a bit embarrassed. I had my ‘come on then, ask me, I dare you’ face on, but no-one did. Shame, because I had a lovely photo of damsons on my phone and I really wanted to show it off.
The gin and the damsons were destined to meet and (I hope) over the next few months become the best of friends. We had an excellent damson harvest this year from our little tree, still recovering from being moved two years ago from its cosy, tucked-in-next-to-the-fence-out-of-the-breeze spot to the middle of the garden with all the wind, pigeons and squirrels. You really can’t eat damsons raw unless they’ve got to the levels of ripeness that make it very unlikely that you’ll have beaten the birds to the picking, and cooking them means hoicking out all the stones which are unshiftable before they’re cooked. So I usually make delicious jam with them. But this year there was enough for jam AND gin. Double the joy.
Damsons are great for jam as they’re high in pectin so you don’t need any extra lemon juice or special jam sugar to help them to set. I used the proportions from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe – 2 kg damsons simmered with 800ml water till soft, stones removed, then add 2.3kg sugar, boil for ten minutes and test for setting. The worst job here is retrieving the stones. Hugh blithely suggests using a slotted spoon. I can tell you from long and bitter experience that this does not work. The only way to get ’em out without losing most of the flesh is to scoop them out with a spoon, then squeeze between your fingers to push the flesh back into the pan. Inevitably you drop the stones as well. Invariably there is swearing. That’s why I won’t do it for the transient pleasure of a damson crumble, gone within ten minutes of putting it on the table. A shelf stacked with beautiful deep claret-coloured jam is going to make me happy for much longer.
And so onto the gin. I’ve made blackberry gin before and sloe gin but not damsons. The traditional way is to prick the fruit all over with a needle, before adding it to sugar and gin and leaving to steep for several months. I’ve done that with sloes and oh my god it is boring. So I was pleased to see an alternative mentioned (albeit not very enthusiastically) by the sainted Nigel Slater in which the fruit is frozen, then bashed to crack the skins. I particularly like this version, because if you were doing it with hedgerow fruit like sloes you could freeze them as you find them, rather than having to have a large enough supply all in one go. I froze about 1kg damsons in a fairly robust plastic bag. When I was ready for damsons to meet gin, I let them thaw for about five minutes then gave them a good bash with a rolling pin to crack the skins. The slight thawing out was essential – I tried to bash them while they were hard frozen and ended up with a split bag and frozen damsons all over the kitchen. I also ended up taking them outside and bashing them on the concrete path; the kitchen worktop was nowhere near sufficiently implacable.
Once all the skins are cracked (as you can see, I got a bit carried away) they are mixed with 750g sugar, and then topped up with 1.5l gin and given a good mix. I divided everything between two 1.5l Kilner jars but you could use bigger or smaller jars as long as you split everything evenly. Then store them somewhere dark and cool, and give them a gentle shake every so often – once a week or when you remember. Should be ready in about three months, when you can decant into clean bottles (IKEA does good cheap ones if you can get there). Don’t throw away the fruit – you can cook them up with more sugar to make a lovely soft preserve, more like a compote. Buy some lovely little glass dishes from charity shops to put it in and you’ll have a nice little Christmas present for someone.
Okay, it’s not beautiful now. BUT IT WILL BE.
You can do the same with vodka if you prefer, and if you can’t get hold of damsons or sloes, you can use blackberries or (though I haven’t tried it) plums. All delicious, ready in time for Christmas, and with the added bonus of booze-sozzled fruit left over to make compote with or add in to Christmas pudding and cake. Here’s a cheeky blackberry gin and tonic from last year’s batch to inspire you. Chin chin.