Our old and sparsely leaved damson tree is hung with fruit this year despite it being a little late in the season and I am determined to make the most of these lovely little fruits. They are hard to reach as they cluster at the top of the tree but they are well worth it. There are lots of ideas as to how damsons came to England – some say that the Duke of Anjou discovered the fruits in around 1220 during the Fifth Crusade and others claim that the Romans introduced them (damson trees are often found around sites of Roman camps).
Damsons were first cultivated in the area around the ancient city of Damascus, capital of modern-day Syria, hence the name. This might suggest they need a Mediterranean climate, but in fact damson trees grow very easily in cold climates or situations where other plum tree species might not flourish. In the UK the centre of commercial damson production is the Lyth valley in Cumbria, north-west England, notable for its wet climate.
Apparently ancient writings describe the use of damson skins in the manufacture of purple dye. It is said that damsons were used to dye RAF uniforms in the Second World War and hats for the Luton hat trade. In France damsons are used to make an eau de vie in Alsace called Quetsch but the eau de vie made from their cousin, the Mirabelle, is better known. Damsons trees belong to the species Prunus insititia, which also includes Bullaces, St. Juliens, and Mirabelles.
I did wonder if the St Julien had anything to the appellation Saint Julien in Bordeaux but it doesn't seem likely. The St Julien is the preferred rootstock used for grafting as it produces a tree which is substantially smaller than plum trees grown on their own roots. It is compatible with almost all plums and gages. (In fact it is also widely used for peaches, nectarines, and apricots, which are very closely related to plums). It was originally bred in France from a seedling and is still widely used today as it is compatible with all varieties.
Mirabelles are either bright red or golden yellow and although they are used for making jams and similar preserves, they are also the variety most often used in plum brandy and similar plum-based spirits. The Mirabelle is a speciality of the French region of Lorraine, which produces 80% of global commercial production. It's thought that René I, Duke of Anjou and Lorraine, planted the first Mirabelle trees at the Chateau Mirabeau in Vaucluse (Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur) during the 15h century, before introducing them to Lorraine.
Another legacy of the damson are the Agen Prunes which are named after the port and market town Argen upriver to the Lot and Garonne valleys where the plum trees grow. In the 13th century after the return of the Fifth Crusade the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Clairac, near Agen, crossed local plum trees with damsons brought back from Syria, producing a new variety of plum called "Prunier d'Ente" (from the old French word "enter," meaning "to graft.") The Clairac monks were also the first to realise that the fruit could be preserved for an entire year once they had been dried in the sun.
In the past, the plums were first left outdoors on trays or straw and then dried in bread ovens or special kilns, remains of which are sometimes found on farms in the Lot-et-Garonne. The prunes grew popular in the 19th century with the development of merchant shipping, since they were greatly appreciated by sailors making long journeys through Northern Europe. They were stocked as provisions on board ship for their taste and nutritional qualities.
The intense, tart flavour of damsons would work very well with lamb, pork, beef or duck. The Roman cookery writer Apicius mentions a recipe for roast venison with a piquant, dried damson sauce and there Moroccan recipes for Tagines using prunes. You can even use damson jam as a glaze for ham (which sounds delicious). I thought I would use my damsons in a Lamb Tagine and here is the recipe:
Tagine of Lamb with Damsons and Almonds
600 g lamb
1 lb damsons
50 g flaked almonds
pinch of salt &, pepper
1 tsp cumin
2 tbsp olive oil
Cut the lamb into cubes and brown over a high heat in the oil. Cut the damsons in half and stone them. Add the damsons and the rest of the ingredients to the lamb and cook over a low heat for about half an hour. Sprinkle with the flaked almonds and serve hot with couscous.
Nick has recommended Château Les Eymeries 2005 as a great wine to pair with Roast Goose Stuffed With Prunes and I think that it will be a good match for the Lamb and Damson Tagine. Les Eymeries comes from the little village of Margueron which lies on the borders of 3 departements: the Gironde, the Dordogne and the Lot et Garonne – not too far from Agen.
It's a lovely wine and is a deep pomegranate red, fine and subtle on the nose with hints of blackberries, vanilla, cherries and smoke. It is rounded and supple and with a good length on the palate and has fine and light tannins. Being Merlot based Chateau Les Eymeries will pair well with most dishes and I think it will handle the Tagine beautifully!