The somewhat doleful term ‘drupe’, used by botanists when referring to stone fruit, seems a bit of a misnomer for the voluptuous plums, greengages and damsons piled high in farm shops and greengrocers. Thanks to this year’s glorious summer, we have a cornucopia from which to choose, including those most seasonal of fruits – greengages and damsons.
Greengages are a superior kind of plum – smaller and sweeter with a lovely fresh green colour and youthful bloom. In France they are known as ‘Reine Claude’ and are classified as plums; it is a peculiarly British convention to differentiate them. The flavour is unique – rich and honeyed with a very faint hint of pear drops. When very ripe and sweet, an enticing bead of moisture drips from the base of the stalk, as if the fruit was about to explode with sweetness and juice.
Damsons are a wild relative of the cultivated plum. They are small and oval, with dark purple skin and firm yellow-green flesh. The flavour is sensational – intensely acidic yet sweet and plummy at the same time.
Writing in World War Two, cookbook author and farmer’s wife Lucie G. Nicoll concluded, “Although one enjoys uncooked damsons after the age of reason and before the age of discretion, the fruit is much better cooked.” I do remember as a child unwisely eating damsons plucked from a hedge, and I also remember the ensuing stomach upsets. Mrs Nicoll certainly had a point.
Once cooked, damsons come into their own, but need a copious amount of sugar to tame the mouth-puckering tartness. They are a natural candidate for preserves and can be transformed into the most sublime jellies, jams, chutneys and pickles, or even damson ‘cheese’ – an firm, intensely flavoured relish served in gleaming slabs with cold meats.
Though plums and greengages are wonderful eaten straight from the fruit bowl, they also make superb tarts and pies. Team them with cobnuts in Greengage and Cobnut Crumble or try them poached or stewed, either whole or in halves or quarters. Cook them carefully until just tender but don’t let them disintegrate. Better still, try them in an end-of-summer barbecue: wrap in thick foil with a knob of butter, a spoonful of brown sugar and a pinch of ground cinnamon. The juices turn into a lovely buttery syrup for pouring over the fruit.
© Christine McFadden, September 2016