The month of September heralds the start of Autumn preserving; jams, jellies, cheeses, sauces, pickles and chutneys. Damsons are the stars of the season and the first preserve I make with them, when they are just ripe is jam.
If you have never made Damson jam, there are a raft of different recipes online, in books and food magazines. Sourcing a recipe with a gelled consistency and a balanced flavour is a challenge and one I find harder each year. Many of the lists of ingredients, the cooking methods and the predicted yields are incomprehensible, and the finished products would bear no resemblance to traditional jam.
A recipe with a small weight of Damsons, just over 1kg will be easy to manage and should need a short fast boil once the sugar has been added. A small batch should make a jam with true fruit flavour and a bright colour. Damsons must be simmered first in sufficient water to soften the skins and extract the pectin and acid from the fruit. I simmer 1.1kg of Damsons in 600ml water. A recipe with 2kg or more of Damsons simmered in 300ml water will not work well. The skins will tend to be tough and the amount of pectin and acid released into the pan will be insufficient and that will affect the consistency of the jam. Similarly recipes suggesting adding all the ingredients at the start and cooking to a set, will tend to result in tough skins and and unpredictable set.
As Damsons are pectin rich fruit, the best sugar to choose is granulated cane. Cane sugar helps achieve a bright colour and a balanced flavour. Avoid using granulated beet sugar as the flavour is often too sweet and I find it produces a less clear and appealing jam.
Cooking and Bottling
Damsons are simmered gently in water, until pulpy. The stones are removed with a slotted spoon as they rise to the surface. Some prove elusive, but they will float on the surface once the sugar has been added and the jam is boiled to a set. With my small batches, I achieve a yield of 2.25kg of jam and test for a set after boiling for just 5 minutes.
After 20 years of judging competitions, I’ve noticed an ongoing confusion amongst competitors about the correct way to fill and seal a jar. In recent years, a belief that a waxed disc and a new or re-cycled lid is the correct way to seal a jar, is a myth made popular by some food writers. To create an airtight seal, a jar should be filled to the brim ( not the shoulder) and any stray flecks of scum or air bubbles removed with a teaspoon. Immediately, seal the jar with a new twist top lid. Jam shrinks slightly on cooling in the jar and a vacuum is created between the surface of the jam and the underside of the lid. As a result the jam should keep well for many months.
Makes around 2.25kg (5lb)
1.1kg (2lb 6oz) damsons
568ml (1 pint) water
1.4kg (3lb) granulated, cane sugar
1. Weigh your preserving pan on a flat set of kitchen scales and keep a note of the weight. Wash the fruit, and put it into the pan with the water. Place the sugar in an ovenproof bowl in a low oven at 140C/275F/Gas 1.
2. Bring the pan to the boil then lower the heat to a very gentle simmer and cook until the fruit is tender and the contents of the pan are pulpy and thickened. This should take about 20 minutes. Remove the stones from the damsons with a slotted spoon.
3. Place a heat resistant mat or trivet on top of the scales. Weigh the pan, there should be around 1.4kg (3lb) of damson pulp plus the weight of the pan. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Place clean jars in the oven to warm.
4. Bring the the jam to a rolling boil. Stir occasionally, to prevent the mixture from catching on the bottom of the pan. Test for a set after 5 minutes, using the flake test. Take a spoonful of the jam out of the pan, hold the spoon over the pan and turn it sideways. As the jam slides down, it should suspend on the side of the spoon.
5. When setting point is reached, remove the pan from the heat. Remove any scum with a metal spoon. Gently stir the jam, pour it into the warm jars and seal with new twist top lids. Leave the jars upright and undisturbed until cold.