Damson Juniper Berry Compote

Though it was windy the other day, we (I speak of myself and the little dog) braved the outside to pick some damsons, which have been hanging guiltily—or, rather, guilt-producingly—on the trees outside. I have never had fruit anxiety; living now with fruit trees has produced a new sort of responsibility: to make sure that their fruit is not wasted. And so, as I’ve watched the damsons get riper in recent weeks, I thought, sh*t, I better start thinking about jam.

This isn’t really jam, I have to warn you, though it’s close; it’s more of a compote. I intend to use it with meats, though it could also be used as jam is normally deployed (spread on toast, etc).

I have to confess, I don’t really like jam.Not having much of a sweet tooth, it’s just not my thing. Maybe this year will change me. I started with about 2 kilograms of damsons, and I still haven’t even dented the harvest.

May I expound on the damson for a moment? They are the plum’s equivalent of a cooking apple; no good to the human raw, they are used cooked, in compotes, for instance, or to flavor liquor (see slivovitz or damson gin). Often they are used for making something called damson cheese, which is a plummy version of cranberry sauce. But where was I? Oh yes, I began with 2 kilos of damsons. Here’s what you’ll need to make 6-8 jam jars (or 4 small kilner jars) of compote.

Ingredients:

  • 2 kilograms (about 4 ½ pounds) damsons
  • 350g (1 1/2 cups) demerara (light brown) sugar
  • 1 1/2 pints (3 cups) water
  • ½ teaspoon juniper berries

Equipment:

  • a large pot (a stock pot will do nicely)
  • a wire rack that will fit in the bottom of the large pot
  • 6-8 jam jars or 4-5 kilner jars, with new lids or rubber rings
  • a thick-bottomed pan or preserving pan
  • sturdy tongs

First wash the damsons, removing any that look iffy. Then put them in a big pot with the water, and stew until mushy, about 25-30 minutes. Push this through a sieve, picking out the stones. May I expound on the damson again? Their stones contain a wonderful little nut-like thing (their seed, I assume), which is more almond-fragrant than the almond itself. If you have a hammer to hand and would like to use it, and like the flavor of almonds, break apart the stones, remove their little nuts, chop them finely, and add this to the sieved product. Your damson puree will have a pronounced almond flavor. (I opted not to do this in favor of the juniper berry.)
Decant the puree that you now have a heavy-bottomed pan, preferably a preserving pan, which widens at the top to encourage evaporation, though any heavy-bottomed pan will do. Lightly crush the juniper berries with the side of a knife and add them in. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. A note here on the sugar: I added the sugar in stages, so that I could taste as went—damsons are very sour, and the balance of how sour or sweet you’d like your compote is contingent on your taste and what you’re going to use it for—toast-spreading people, I am going to assume that you like your stuff on the sweeter side. Regardless, 350g of sugar for the amount of puree I had (about three pints) seemed good to me.

Go get a book, and let this stuff simmer (stirring often) until it reaches its setting point. This is usually determined by how it slides off a spoon (slowly, glob-like, viscous), or whether or not it wrinkles when dolloped on a frozen plate. When you’ve reached the magic moment, decant it into sterilized jars and heat treat. Since there are so many resources covering the technical aspects of preserving, I won’t add my two cents but will direct you to those who can tell you the right way to do it. I will tell you that one of my jars failed the vacuum-seal test, so it is now in the fridge, waiting for my mother -in-law to spread it on toast.