Drowning in damsons

After the wet summer we’ve had, our elderly damson trees are groaning under the weight of their fruit – and one branch has snapped under the strain. The damsons are hanging like bunches of grapes – I’ve never seen such a crop. The rural lanes round here are peppered with handmade signs advertising damsons for sale, and a friend who has plum trees is pressing plums on everyone she meets.

damsonsIf I’ve been quiet, its because I’m struggling to cope with the glut on top of a normal day’s work. We must have picked 50lbs off our two trees already, and there’s at least twice as much still to go, and I’ve already put lots in the freezer. We’ve made two vats of damson vodka already (six times the recipe below), and I made 7lbs of damson chutney before school this morning. I would have made more, but the preserving pans at Lakeland are sold out, and my big old saucepan is too small for more than one batch at a time.

So – just in case you have damson trees – here are the recipes I’ve been using. All, obviously, naturally gluten free.

Damson vodka

You’ll hear different versions of this recipe, with different proportions of fruit, sugar and alcohol. It’s based on the old sloe gin recipe … so if you have sloes, or plums, or want gin rather than vodka, feel free to mix and match, and use more or less of everything!

4lbs of fruit: 2lbs of sugar; 1litre of alcohol.

Prick the washed fruit several times with a fork. Mix all ingredients together. Leave for 3 months, stirring weekly. Strain out the fruit (should be nicely alcoholic by now, and you could use it on icecream, or perhaps in pies). Bottle just in time for Christmas. If you’re lucky enough to have a Lakeland near you, or an oldfashioned cookshop, you may be able to get sloe gin bottles – otherwise, just keep the vodka bottles and reuse them.

Damson and ginger chutney

This will make about 7lbs of chutney. See http://www.free-from.com/blog/?p=27 for instructions on sterilising jam jars.

3lbs damsons. Wash them and remove the stalks.
2in piece of fresh root ginger (or 4 tablespoons of ready-grated fresh ginger – not ground ginger).
15 cardamom pods. Crush them, discard the outer husks and save the black seeds.
1lb onions, very finely chopped
1 big cooking apple, chopped to size of sultanas
1lb of granulated sugar
1lb of dark muscovado sugar
12 oz of sultanas
2 pints of cider vinegar
6in cinnamon stick
2tablespoons of salt

Put the damsons into your (big!) pan and stir over a gentle heat until the fruits burst. Some people advise removing the stones at this point – I think they’re easier to remove later, when the flesh falls off them.

Add everything to the damsons, bring to the boil, then simmer for about 3 and one-half hours. While it is simmering, pick out the stones and discard them. Don’t let the chutney stick.

When it begins to look like chutney – thick and gloopy – and has reduced by about half, remove the pan from the heat. Discard the cinnamon stick, fill the jars and seal. Leave them for 3 months. They’ll be ready for Christmas.

Damson Jam

I’ll be making this too! Just follow the recipe for raspberry jam, but obviously replace the fruit. Don’t forget to pick the stones out as the jam is simmering.

**** update 2013 ****

I’ve had so much interest in damsons! There’s obviously a great love of the fruit, and a serious shortage of trees, so not enough fruit available, either here in the UK or in the USA. This is an old post, and our trees are now getting very old too; this is not going to be such a good year for damsons for us… I’ll have to plant some more damson trees, I think!

Published by


Lucy is the mother of a coeliac, and has been managing a gluten free diet for her daughter for 20 years - though, to be fair, she does do most of it herself now...

39 thoughts on “Drowning in damsons”

  1. You made chutney before school? All hail the uber mother!
    Alas, have no damsons, but enjoyed reading your recipes. Damson gin sounds delicious, I can’t touch vodka since i overdosed during a ‘fun’ evening where I made lemon vodka, russian starters and 8 of us did the ‘vasdorovye’ toasting thing and downed 2 bottles in 20 minutes. I should get an award for idiocy.

  2. O Pig, I feel ill just thinking about your fun evening! I expect it was fun, too – at the time.

    Yes, I did make chutney before school, but I’m a very early riser these days. Might explain why I’m not so good at fun evenings any more …

  3. Hi Fulton – I’m sorry, no, I don’t ship damsons. I hope you can find some near you, because they are a wonderful autumnal treat.

  4. Hi Fulton – I’m in rural Cheshire, in the northwest of England, but I have no damsons for sale. In fact, the weather has changed, and the damson season seems to be over for another year.

  5. Can you tell me where I can purchase sufficient damsons to make damson vodka & damson brandy?

  6. Hi Mike

    Damsons don’t seem to be quite ripe here yet. Early September, perhaps…

    I’m not sure what to recommend. Are you town or country based? Farmers markets may well have damsons in season, or online suppliers such as Northern Harvest or Abel & Cole. Otherwise, your best bet is to ask around locally, or to see if you can spot a handwritten sign in country lanes near you. If you’re in the middle of London, I can see that might be a problem, in which case try a farmers market.

    If it turns out to be a bumper harvest again this year, you may find that people are just pleased to give them away so they don’t go to waste! I’ve certainly been delighted to receive plums when people have too many…

    It’s looking good for apples, but I’m not sure about plums or damsons this year. If you find a good source, please do let us know.

  7. hi, i am fortunate enough to have a damson tree in my garden, im harvesting it in the next few days and hoping for about 10lb of fruit. we’ve always made jam but after seeing the recipe for damson vodka im going to have to try that!

  8. Hi Lucy, You’re right about it being a problem in London. I’m in north London and there’s not a damson to be seen! My local Waitrose used to stock them but have told me for the last three years in a row that they can’t get hold of them, so I have resorted to the internet so I can make damson chutney. I have one pot left circa 2005 and I think it needs eating. Can anyone help?

  9. The best I can come up with if you’re London based is Allens Farm, which does mail order damsons (in season, obviously!) and is in Kent. They probably prefer pick-your-own, though, if you fancied a long day out.

    Anyone know of other pick-your-own damsons?

  10. Re making the chutney (which I’ve never done), when you put the end product into the sterlized jars and seal, do you mean you just put the stuff into the washed/oven-heated jars and apply the top? I remember my grandmother making jam and using the big pot and water-bathing the filled jam jars. Do you have to do anything extra to the chutney? Do you need to seal the top of the chutney (like you sometimes do with wax on jam)? What prevents the chutney from going bad if there are no (perish the thought) preservatives?
    P.S. I’m in Virginia and have just come across damson plums at a local farmers market. Damson gin is ginning….

  11. Hi Emmy

    You do need to sterilise the jars, either by boiling them, or by putting them in the oven for a while (140C or 275F should do it). Don’t forget to do the lids too! (Don’t put plastic lids in the oven, they melt – but boiling these seems to be fine).

    If you put the hot chutney into the hot jar, and immediately put the hot lid on, you should be fine without adding waxed paper circles. At least, I’ve never had a problem with mould growing. I think the sugar is a preservative.

    When adding the lid, I usually put it on lightly to begin with, and then tighten it up once it’s cooled a little bit.

    Hope it works out for you..

  12. Thanks very much, Lucy. I was just concerned about how long the chutney would last, but did not consider the sugar being the preservative part. I want to make the chutney and use it as Christmas gifts. One would not like to pass along something that would not be fit to eat! I appreciate your help.

  13. I like your recipe for damson vodka and intend to start harvesting my damsons tomorrow to get started.I am also looking for a recipe for preserving damsons in brandy where the liquor thickens up – any ideas damson lovers?

  14. Hi,
    I’ve just been out in the lanes of Cambridgeshire and picked 10lbs of wild damsons and 3lbs of sloes.
    I intend to make the damson vodka and if any are left then some damson chutney.
    The sloe gin will be made as usual (single bush variety.South facing)
    Any other ideas as to what to make with the remaining damsons apart from jam…..too sickly.

  15. Hmm – if you don’t like too much sugar, how about just stewing the damsons down (with a tiny amount of water so they don’t burn initially) until they turn into a pulp, extracting the stones, and treating this as a tart sauce for icecream – or, I suppose, a savoury dish like venison. A search on the BBC site suggests using a damson sauce with lamb.

    Damson cheese is a good oldfashioned English recipe, though it does use sugar. Try this recipe: at Cottage Smallholder

    Or there’s an interesting recipe here for Damson Snow – again, a very old-fashioned English dish: Englishman’s Castle

    Do let us know what you did with them. Sounds like a great find!

  16. Thank you very much for the recipe suggestions…the ice cream sauce sounds delicious and will give it a try.
    I am very lucky that the trees here are absolutly laden with fruit..it must be a good year for it.
    i will be happy to give directions if needed if anyone living nearby would like join in the harvest.

  17. I have loads of damsons growing behind my house and would like to make some jam. I’ve tasted one and they taste very bitter\sour, is this right or are they not ripe enough yet?

  18. Hi John – lucky you!

    I think uncooked damsons are very sour indeed, and yours probably are ripe, given the time of year (unless you’re in the frozen north somewhere, I suppose – I’m in Cheshire). There may be varieties that are edible from the tree, but mine aren’t! Personally, I don’t like my damsons without sugar, but think they’re ideal for jam/chutney.

    If they are ripe, you will probably see fallen ones on the ground; they should come away from the tree fairly easily in your hand; they should be a lovely deep dark purple colour, often with a dusty bloom; and they should feel firm but not hard.

    Hope that helps.

  19. Brian,

    I would really love to know where you have found damsons in Cambs. I’m new to picking this year and having had a look on some footpaths near me and the Cambridge country park I’m still empty-handed!


  20. I have an organic farm in Dorset and we have masses of sloes. I have made my sloe gin, sloe vodka and jam – and love some of the ideas here!!

    If anyone wants me to pick them some and send them by post, email me at fiona@beremarshfarm.co.uk

  21. Thank goodness! The damson trees in our garden are the same. I’m off to uni in a few weeks so am trying to use them all before I go. I’ve made 4 pots of jam and 4 litres of damson vodka already today o.O! haha x

  22. Les: did you keep it out of the light? The pigments from the fruit are light sensitive. You need to store damson/sloe gin in the dark.

  23. The pigment loss is due to oxidation of the anthocyanins. I actually don’t know the safety of consumption of these oxidation products, however I would be very surprised if they are not safe; anthocyanins are advocated as healthy natural antioxidants, so they would be oxidised in the body to provide you with this benefit. I think you are more at risk of flavour loss!!

  24. Hi Lucy
    I was delighted to see you’re in Cheshire. I’m in Gee Cross (Hyde), which is supposed to be in the same county!.
    I would like to start making Damson Gin again this year (haven’t for ages).
    Do you have a crop this year, or has the rotten summer spoilt everything?
    I see you don’t ship them, but I could always collect, if you were agreeable.
    By the way – yours is a very interesting website!
    Best regards

  25. first time for my lifetime here in middle Teme valley Worcs. no one is taking the damson crop wholesale. Crisis over maggots from invading moths from Europe in last years crop largely taken in Poland means large scale market closed.
    If one could only afford to get them to London, or perhaps engage interest of Londoners in ordering annual supply, they might not go to waste after domestic capacity is filled. The trees were originally planted to provide not food but dye stuff for military uniforms.
    Damson growers Co-Op?
    R.T.L.Salmon The Hatch Lindridge

  26. Hi Robin

    Interesting! And given the number of email enquiries I get every year from people wanting to know where they can buy damsons (not just in the UK, but also US), there’s definitely a market out there for them… though perhaps not in wholesale quantities.

    I think the answer may be in a subscription system, so that the growers have a guaranteed outlet and therefore income. Obviously this would be too late for this year’s harvest unless you could whip up a social/media storm of interest in them… No niche flavoured-vodka makers? No jam companies? Could you get a celebrity chef to reference them (like the Delia effect used to work)? It’s a fascinating problem – and I didn’t know about the original purpose, which is really interesting.

    It would be a great shame to lose the trees

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *