“Did you shake the Sloes?” is a daily question once the clocks have turned back at Tythebarn House, referring to the autumn ritual of reaching up and shaking the sloe gin bottles. A little sip from time to time doesn’t go unnoticed, “leave some for those cold winter walks.”
A glorious late September day had tempted us over to the Lyth Valley on a foraging foray. First to our favourites Sloe spot at ‘Hikers Barn’. That’s all I’m saying as you may go there too next year and beat us to it! Then a little diversion through Witherslack, up to the church hall for a look around the local artists’ exhibition, and we came across this very quirky way of selling apples.
Of course we couldn’t resist this unique form of marketing and chose the ‘Bradley’s Beauty’. They cooked down a treat with our day’s collection of blackberries, appearing as Blackberry and Apple Pancakes on our breakfast menu….
and making a lovely addition to our home-made yoghurt pots too….
For me the ultimate foraging food at this time of year is the damson.
The beautiful gnarled trees bearing their rich purple fruit are found along the grass verges in these parts if you know where to look. The picking season was coming to an end and we were just in time to collect a few pounds along our way.
The glorious and glossy Damson Cheese is my favourite way of transforming this orchard escapee into a sublime accompaniment to our wonderful local cheeses.
My recipe for Britains’ Best Dish 2011 ensured that the Damson Cheese reached perfection through the rounds to feature on the winning regional pud and the first round of the finals. here it’s shaped as a damson and served with my prize-winning Damson and Apple Pie.
Here’s the final version – you can double the recipe, but making this small amount is the best way to make sure you have a portion of perfection to remind you of the turning of the seasons.
- 250g damsons, frozen and then defrosted
- A few kernels from the damson stones, cracked
- 50ml water
- Approx 150g granulated sugar
- Knob of butter (optional)
These quantities will make 125 – 150 ml of Damson cheese, enough to fill 1 ramekin dish. You can double the recipe, but any more and it will be difficult to judge when it is ready.
Freezing and defrosting the damsons before cooking makes them soft enough to stone easily, and also to cook down to a puree more quickly.
Serve with cold meats and cheeses or stir into a Herdwick Casserole at the last minute. According to ‘Food in England’ by Dorothy Hartley “Damson Cheese is one of the oldest country recipes…..and improves for up to two years.” She recommends turning it out onto a plate, spiking with split almonds and serving with port wine poured over it as a dessert. Let me know if you try it.
- Remove the stones from the damsons. Wash a few stones, place in a clean tea towel, wrap and then crack with a rolling pin to remove the kernels from the stones.
- Put the damsons into a medium sized saucepan with the water and the kernels (they add an almond flavour) and bring to the boil.
- Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the damsons are tender, for approximately 10-15 minutes.
- Pour the mixture through a sieve over a large bowl and press through using the back of a wooden spoon.
- Measure the purée and allow 150g of sugar to each 200ml of pulp.
- Return the measured purée to the pan and add the correct amount of sugar. Stir frequently until the sugar has dissolved (don’t boil at this stage).
- Add a knob of butter if you like. It mellows the sharpness of the damsons.
- Once all the sugar has dissolved, bring to the gentle boil.
- Reduce the heat and continue cooking, stirring frequently (very important)
- Keep stirring until the puree is reduced to a very thick and glossy consistency. The best way to describe when it is ready is that it will make a ‘plopping’ noise, stick to the spoon, and you will be able to see the base of the pan as you stir.
- Lightly grease some warm sterilized ramekin dishes or moulds with flavourless oil. Spoon in the paste and level the top. Leave to cool.
- Loosen with a small palette knife, turn out and wrap in waxed paper or cling film. Leave in a cool, dark place for 6-8 weeks before eating.
I could be tempted to let you try a taster on your toast at breakfast if you ask very nicely. It has been known for a guest to try a sip of the Sloe Gin – at breakfast!
Frozen Damsons are available to buy all year round from: Witherslack Community Shop Ltd. Witherslack, Grange-Over-Sands, Cumbria, LA11 6RH. Tel: 015395 52188. There are lots of other local goodies available there too. They will love your support.
Images: Copyright Diana Brown
There’s so much to see and explore around this area. The Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Arnside & Silverdale AONB and wildlife haven of the Morecambe Bay area are all within easy reach.
For more inspiring images: vimeo by 2020VISION “Morecambe Bay… a wild place…a big place …a place of infinite skies and endless colour…”