Damsons, quince and sloes: hedgerow heroes for a bittersweet summer finale

Flora Shedden

was recently in a state of shock when looking at the calendar. Nearly the end of September? How can it be? This year has flown by far quicker than I could have imagined, and these last few months of work on ARAN Bakery have surely contributed to that. I feel soothed, though, by the season we are now bang in the middle of – when the weather starts to turn, the air smells fresher, and the shops turn their stocks around to make way for a bounty of orchard fruit and hedgerow treats. Call me biased (I am a November baby), but this half of the year is my favourite, dark drizzly afternoons and all.

Alongside the huge variety of apples, pears and even quince available now, we have damsons and sloes. These dark little jewels can be found throughout the countryside, and are free (and often tastier) when foraged yourself. Though neither should be eaten raw, damsons are transformed when boiled, baked and preserved, and sloes paired with my two favourite ingredients – gin and sugar (in that order) – makes a delicious winter cocktail.

I adore the cooking methods we turn to at this time of year to preserve the last of the fresh fruits, and as I write this to a soundtrack of heavy rain there is a big pot of chutney on the hob waiting to be jarred. The damson cheese I have shared this week (a firm fruit paste to serve with actual cheese) makes the most of the fruit’s slightly bitter quality – all too often I find traditional quince cheese too sweet. This bitterness does need to be considered when making the jam here; adding some blackberries helps take the edge off, creating a jam that is more cake- and breakfast-friendly.

As much as I would love to be making the most of these days to pot and preserve, it’s time to put on my overalls for more painting and tiling at the bakery. After lots of false predictions (mainly recorded here), I can see ARAN Bakery opening next month – with damson and sloe jam on the shelves of course.

Damson and 
sloe jam

Fills approximately six 400-450g jars

Ingredients

  • 1kg mix of sloes, damsons and blackberries (a roughly equal ratio of the three works best; sloes are too bitter on their own)
  • 150ml apple juice
  • 1kg jam sugar

Method

  1. Weigh out the fruit and apple juice into a large heavy-bottomed pan or jam pan.
  2. Bring to the boil slowly and stir regularly. Once boiling, you should notice the stones from the damsons float to the top. Skim off and discard.
  3. Squash any damsons that haven’t quite cooked against the side of the pan then check very carefully again for any stones (sloe stones are much smaller) and discard them.
  4. Add the sugar and boil for a further 15 to 20 minutes, again stirring regularly. Once the jam reaches 104.5C on a sugar thermometer it is ready.
  5.  Take off the heat and pour into sterilised jars immediately. Cool for 15 minutes before placing the lids on top.