The Jam #4 A Journal From England Preserves
It may only be September but memories of summer are already dissolving faster than damsons at a roiling boil. Was it only last month we were spreading jam on our morning rolls and plotting which Cornish beach to head to while injecting caffeine after another night in the tent?
Still, a change in the season means a change in the crops, with raspberries and strawberries segueing to damsons and apples. (Talking of apples, our Heritage apple collection is BACK. More on them next time, but place your orders now so as not to miss out.) Apples mean Kai will be getting busy with his apple cheeses, which he likes to flavour with different spice combinations. Will this be the year he matches the record 25 different takes using various varieties? Watch this space.
First, though, comes our Darling Damson jam, which has one of the most eye-catching labels. As ever, keep reading for more about Sarah Nechamkin’s brilliant design, which quite literally looks like an eye.
With the children back in school - finally - we celebrated by scooping up the jam hound and heading to Faversham in Kent to see David, who grows our damsons. (He grows them for other people as well, but we like to think of them as ours.) David has been growing damsons for 25 years, which is 24 more than he’d bargained for after buying some land that came with an orchard that was due to be “grubbed” - the technical term for uprooting trees.
“I was going to hang onto the orchard for one year, but I was so pleased with what we got off the trees we ended up expanding and getting some trees propagated to plant another orchard,” he tells us, after we’d loaded 2 tonnes of his damsons into our Landrover. And he hasn’t looked back.
After frost in April (which is almost the title of a novel by Antonia White), he’d assumed this year’s damson crop would be a write off but it turned out to be a “reasonable” haul. Unlike his Bramley apples, which were almost decimated by the cold spring, he adds.
Although damsons could do with their Nigella moment - “They need Delia or Jamie or Prue to make a damson muffin instead of a blueberry muffin” - David thinks the fruit is gaining in popularity. That said, while he was manning the stall he has three times a week in Faversham market, his pile of purple beauties did cause some confusion as well as delight.
“One person thought they were black grapes and someone else thought they were giant blueberries,” he says. Damons can be used for anything from gin and vinegar to jam and chutneys but David’s penchant is for damson crumble. “It’s fantastic.”
There’s a lot to love about autumn, but David is right, crumble is right up there. Who doesn’t crave a warming dessert, fruit bubbling through the tongue-singeing crust?
When it comes to crumble, anything goes, but damson is a family favourite. Topping wise, Sky remembers the wholesome recipes of her childhood. “I grew up with parents who were card carrying members of the whole food society, so our crumbles were mainly made with oats. It was a lightbulb moment when I tasted one made with white flour,” she says.
She credits her sister Treea - Saturday jam arch shoppers and Walthamstowites will know her as @londonflowerfarmer from Instagram - with coming up with the idea of whizzing the oats up alongside white flour for the best of both worlds. “It’s better for you like this, but less rustic,” says Sky.
For a rough recipe - crumble doesn’t need to be precise - Sky takes 500g to 700g of damsons (“it’s up to you if you want to stone them or risk your teeth”) which she scatters in the bottom of an enamel baking dish, sprinkling four tablespoons of brown sugar over them. For the topping, she pulses 150g of white flour ad 150g of oats in a food processor. Then adds 90g butter and 90g of Demerara sugar or soft brown sugar. When the mixture is crumbly, she likes to stir in a handful of nuts: hazelnuts and pecans are good, and a teaspoon or two of cinnamon or ground cardamon. Or, for a bit of fun, try pulsing in some pistachios for a green crumble; a particularly good look with purple damsons.
Bake at around 180 degrees C for half an hour or so, or until the fruit starts to bubble round the edges. And she’s a cream person, not custard. But the choice is yours.
For a slightly different damson hit, our Damson Cheese is something pretty special. NB, this isn’t cheese in the traditional sense, but a thick fruit paste.
“We call this a ‘cheese’ because any food sustenance that was made into a solid form or a block used to be referred to as a cheese. Taking out the water is a very old way of preserving things, helping fruit to last throughout winter in some capacity,” says Sky.
In her encyclopaedic compilation of recipes, The Book of Household Management, published in 1860, Isabella Beeton includes a recipe for damson cheese, but the concoctions date back to Tudor times, when they would have been made in very ornate moulds. June Taylor, a perfectionist preserver based in Rockridge, California, is our favourite for ornate inspiration over on Instagram where you can find her making damson pastilles @jamwifey.
Pastilles, pastes, membrillos, cheeses: they’re all essentially the same thing. “When Kai and I used to work in farmers’ markets selling our fruit cheese, we’d get people telling us all the different names for it in different languages,” says Sky.
“Our damson cheese has a really intense, clean flavour and it looks really beautiful. It goes very well with younger lactic cheeses like a young goats cheese or with a blue cheese. Also, my kids love it for pudding if we haven’t got anything else.”
Meet the Designers
Ever noticed how much the print on our Darling Damson label looks so much like damsons? We’re not saying Sarah Nechamkin was thinking about fruit when she came up with that pattern paper for the Curwen Press but we’re not saying she wasn’t.
Born in London in 1917, Nechamkin was another artist whose vibrant designs were used for many book jackets, including a selection of poems by Byron published by Penguin. Her work as a book illustrator includes several collections of fairy tales, legends and nursery rhymes. One of her paintings, Landscape, 1960, has been part of the Tate collection since 1975.
Nechamkin’s parents were artists, as was her uncle. She studied under the influential art teacher Nan Youngman, and later at the Chelsea School of Art. As well as her work as an illustrator, Nechamkin also worked as a nurse and the West London Hospital and taught at the Clapton School for Girls. She moved to Ibiza in 1961, lured by the island’s vibrant colours, which she kept painting into her 90s. She died in 2017.
Slice of Life
Before summer gave us the slip, Sky nipped to the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park for an evening of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. It was day three of an eleventh-hour heatwave, which could have done with going on just 60 more minutes. The weather broke at 9pm, half-way through the show, which got cancelled, leaving her guessing about the fate of Julie Jordan and Billie Bigelow. Ah well, there’s always the soundtrack.
Luckily the weather didn’t matter for Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit at the Harold Pinter Theatre, in London’s Panton Street, which has returned after an 18-month pandemic hiatus. Think poltergeists not preserves but make sure you don’t miss it. Jennifer Saunders is fabulous as the home counties mystic Madame Arcati, and the rest of the cast are great too.
Sky and Kai xx