Deep down I secretly enjoy the slow turn of seasons as summer melds into autumn.
Yes, I miss wearing a bikini in the garden, slopping around in flip flops, sipping rosé in the sun, sitting outside late into the night, flinging on a pair of towering sandals, lighting barbecues, wrapping myself in floaty dresses and helping myself to an array of salad ingredients fresh from the garden.
But, in return I love the hedgerows as they begin to offer up a world full of food and possibilities, I rather relish 80 denier tights, the customary new pair of winter boots, the reemergence of candles, of stews, casseroles, slow cooking, fires, liqueurs, jumpers, drawing the curtains and a 14-tog duvet.
As the hedgerows begin to buckle under the weight of their own produce, I indulge in the chance to pick, forage, brew, infuse, cure, smoke and preserve everything I can get my hands on.
This time of year seems to offer a profusion of foraging opportunities that we see at no other point in the calendar.
There are sloes, damsons, blackberries, bullaces, chestnuts, cobnuts, elderberries, hips, rowan berries, crab apples, rosehips, haws and apples – a myriad of jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, cordials, liqueurs, sauces, preserves, vinegars, ketchups and chutneys waiting to happen.
My fingers are always itching to get hold of jars and bottles to sustain the ambitions I have in the kitchen.
Some produce lends itself to one thing and one thing only – sloes must be laced in gin or vodka, there’s no other way (although a slider made of the discarded berries is a true treat). Rosehips seem most at home in a jelly, perfect for cheese, gravies and casseroles.
Apples, here at least, are lovingly scratted, pressed and fermented for cider (and if the cider fails we always have a supply of delicious cider vinegar).
But there are other fruits that I always feel are under explored in the kitchen.
It seems all too easy to make an array of jellies, liqueurs and stewed puddings with damsons, blackberries and haws.
So this year I’ve set about broadening my culinary repertoire with these pickings.
First up it’s damsons.
Damsons are a sub species of the plum tree only smaller. It has a decadent dark blue skin and a tartness only surpassed by the sloe (which looks like its smaller cousin).
Believed to have been first cultivated in antiquity, in Damascus, they are thought to have been introduced into England by the Romans.
Because of their astringency the damson is ordinarily used for cooking – for jams, jellies and preserves. They’re also very much at home in gin or vodka. (We’re still working through a bottle of damson gin I made years ago – and with age it certainly improves).
A damson cheese was appealing, as was a fool, a tart and an ice cream. But, instead I took the savoury route and plumped for damson ketchup.
It has to be said that I love a homemade ketchup – sauces which offer deep, dark flavours that unpick and unravel as soon as they touche your tongue.
In the past my favourite has been a beetroot and rhubarb affair, both tangy, earthy, sweet and fruity and often peppered with chilli flakes.
This time the I stuck with the beetroot (favouring it’s earthiness) and paired it with damson. There was sugar of course (but not too much), warming spice and appley cider vinegar.
Once made I tried in straight from the pan. It was tangy and rich, a perfect accompaniment to meat, a side to cheese, a slather in sandwiches and a cheeky dip for homemade breadsticks.
All-in-all a winner and it took no time at all.
I tried it with food today, for the first time. After a 21-mile bike ride it joined a full English and was quite comfortably at home on the plate.
The trug of damsons sitting patiently in the boot room will follow the same fate and will be frozen for an ongoing (hopefully) supply of this savoury treat.
Some damsons remain ripe for the picking, if you find them, I urge you to give this a try…
- 250 g damsons (stoned)
- 90 g beetroot (cooked)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large red onion, chopped
- 1/2 star anise
- 2 cloves
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 75 g granulated sugar
- 35 ml cider vinegar
- 50 ml water
Destone the damsons and place aside in a bowl.
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan and cook the onion with the spices, bay leaf and a pinch of salt until soft and translucent.
Add the damsons and beetroot, together with the vinegar, sugar and water and simmer until the damsons have broken down (about 10 minutes depending on the ripeness of the damsons).
Take the mix off the heat and when cool enough blitz the mixture in a blender and season with salt.
Adjust the taste to suit with salt or sugar.
Sieve the mixture and store in the fridge.
Perfect with cold meats, cheese, fried breakfasts, in sandwiches and as a dip.