When I say 'scrump' - I was invited - but I really didn't intend to take so many. But the sun was warm, the mood peaceful - the type of weather that literary types might refer to as 'replete' - replete with mellow September sunshine, redolent with birdsong, with the hum of bees, with goodwill and with the sense of a good thing coming gracefully to an end - as summer must eventually do, Indian or otherwise.
The bullaces were literally dropping off the trees as we picked - and although I only had one bag with me, it was too easy to fill as we chatted.
I wasn't in the least prepared, so popped in to the local 'low end' supermarket for sugar and cheap vodka, safe in the knowledge that the best place to start would probably be a little something to cheer up the dark winter nights that I expect are to come. I also bought some gin, but once home realised that I didn't have 2 appropriate receptacles. So I used the vodka and the gin can wait for the sloes...
500g down (enough to pimp a 75cl bottle of average to low-grade vodka), I cast around for other likely ingredient combinations.
3 jars of bullace and stem ginger jam (thanks Sarah Raven) later, and I still had nearly 3 kilos to go. I'd taken the recipe for damson cheese - very similar to 'membrillo' of Spanish cuisine - from my friend. If you haven't come across this before, it's a set fruit 'jelly', to be eaten, sliced rather than spooned, as a savoury - with cheese - or, as we discussed while I was sampling hers, perhaps stirred into gravies and the like. It would taste delicious with lamb as an alternative to redcurrant.
The process is relatively straightforward and has none of the setting point stress I associate with making jam - make a purée, then add sugar and bubble gently down. The recipe even helpfully describes how to tell if the mixture is ready in terms of the sound it will make ("a plop") as well as what it will look like. Marvellous.
As my friend advised, I didn't bother stoning the bullaces before embarking on the cheese. I'd already stoned over a kilo to achieve the required weight for the jam making, and it was a total pain (not to mention making my already inelegant fingernails look even worse - I had some vivid cherry flashbacks as I cursed my way through them) - and as you sieve the purée anyway, I decided to heed her advice. I'd noted that about 1.25kg of whole fruit yielded a kilo of stoned when making the jam, so worked on that basis.
It takes a little time, but the resulting cheese is really delicious, and I can see it cheering up many a winter evening to come. I could also venture to suggest that the little packages of fruity delightfulness would make appropriate offerings for that festival beginning with C that comes up in 3 months time. But as it's only September, I can't bring myself to elaborate further on that subject...
Bullace (or Damson) cheese
- 2.5 kg bullaces, washed, stalks and any stray leaves etc removed.
- granulated sugar (exact amounts depend on the amount of purée you achieve after the first stage - you need 450-600g sugar for every 600ml (1lb for every pint if you're imperial) of purée depending on how tart the purée tastes - and perhaps how tart you think you'd like your finished product)
- 50g unsalted butter (optional)
Put the bullaces in a large heavy based pan - if you're a jam maker, the jam pan will do nicely, and add 600ml water.
Bring to a boil and simmer, occasionally mashing the bullaces with a potato masher, until you have a thick, syrupy pulp which will be beautifully pink - this takes about 30-40 minutes.
Sieve this pulp in batches. I must confess to sieving it all and then going to bed because it was late and I was tired. So if you're still going at this point, measure as you go to work out how much sugar you need. If you're a lightweight like me, when you're ready for stage 2 (and I expect the puree would freeze well if needed) measure the puree.
Add sugar accordingly - 450g for each 600ml of puree - then return to the pan and add the butter (if using - apparently it makes for a mellower cheese).
Heat gently to dissolve all the sugar, then bring to a simmer and continue to cook gently for as long as it takes to achieve a thick glossy paste that "plops and sticks to a wooden spoon or will levae a clear trail is the spoon is drawn across the bottom of the pan". It took mine closer to 11/2 hours before I was confident I'd reached the right point.
At this point, you need to oil whatever receptacles you are going to use to set the cheese in. Ramekins will work, jam jars to make bigger portions, or you could make a big slab in a loaf tin. You could also, I guess, make 'cubes' using ice cube trays if that doesn't re-open any Annabel Karmel babyweaning type scars for you... *
Sterilise your pots, dry and lightly oil them, then spoon in the cheese and leave to cool.
Turn the cooled cheese out of the moulds and wrap in waxed paper.
Apparently, you should leave it for 6-8 weeks before eating. And it'll last for up to 2 years.
Well, it's always good to know the theories, isn't it?
* I didn't have quite enough to fill a final ramekin, and because the Pink one was home, 'poorly' and gave me the idea for it, I spread the last bit out on a piece of greasproof paper to see if I could re-create the 'fruit leather' that is so popular in my children's peers' lunch boxes and which I refuse to buy...
When it was cool, I cut it into strips and rolled it up. Eat your heart out, Annabel Karmel...