Saturday, 19 September 2015

Damson cheese

In my last post I wrote about Mr Glegg in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss who loyally admires his wife’s questionable culinary talents.  Amongst her ‘renowned’ delicacies, the narrator mentions the ‘venerable hardness’ of Mrs Glegg’s damson cheese.

Recipes for fruit cheeses – quince, apples, blackberries and gooseberries can also be used – date back to the 13th century; like jam, they are made by cooking fruit and sugar over a low heat until the mixture thickens – once cool, it will set.  However, fruit cheeses use less sugar than jam, and are traditionally eaten – in slices – as an accompaniment to savoury food – e.g. meat or cheese.  In Delightes for Ladies, a book of recipes and household hints published in 1609, Sir Hugh Plat includes a recipe for damson cheese in which the damsons are cooked to a pulp with rosewater or wine, before adding sugar.

In her encyclopaedic compilation of recipes, The Book of Household Management, published in 1860, one year before The Mill on the Floss, Isabella Beeton also includes a recipe for damson cheese, very similar to the one I used below.  She notes the large quantities of fruit needed to produce a small quantity of cheese – “1 pint of damsons to make a very small pot of cheese” – and the length of time needed to cook the damsons – “1 hour to boil the damsons without the sugar; 2 hours to simmer them slowly, 1/2 hour quickly.”

Mrs Beeton, a photographic portrait from c. 1860-65
So, I made my damson cheese, using the plethora of damsons in my landlady’s garden: it was simple to make, but time-consuming, and the result was delicious and far from ‘hard’.


Ingredients (makes enough to fill one shallow plastic container (12 x 18 x 4 cm)
1kg damsons
350g granulated sugar (approx)

Wash the damsons and put them in a large, heavy saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Heat over a medium heat, stirring regularly as the damsons release their juices and come to a simmer.  Allow to simmer until the fruit is soft.  You may find - as I did - that you need to add more water if the damsons are very hard  (I probably added another 6 tablespoons in all).  The harder the damsons, the longer that this stage will take; many recipes say simmer the fruit for 25-30 minutes, but mine took about 1 hour to become soft.

Using the back of a spoon, rub the fruit through a sieve into a large measuring jug, leaving behind the stones, stalks and skin.  You will end up with a beautifully smooth rich dark red puree.

Measure the puree.  For every 500ml of puree (which in my experience is what 1kg damsons produces), you will need 350g granulated sugar.  Combine the damson puree and sugar in a large heavy-based saucepan.  Bring the puree to a low simmer over a gentle heat, stirring regularly so the mixture does not catch.  Allow the mixture to simmer gently and thicken - it is ready when you drag the spoon across the base of the pan and the base stays visible for a second or two.  According to recipes I consulted this can take up to one hour, but I found it only took 20 minutes.

Pour the puree into a lightly oiled shallow plastic container and leave to cool and set.  It can keep for ever in the fridge!

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