5 December 1997

Old-fashioned but dark & delicious – thats damson

A fruit more usually

associated with jam and dye is

turned into a feast in Shropshire.

Tessa Gates joined the

gathering to celebrate a humble

plum-with-a-past

DAMSONS – glorious in colour and flavour – seem a rather old fashioned fruit nowadays, crowded out of the commercial market by more easily picked fruits from exotic places.

But in Shropshire, where damsons used to provide an income for cottagers and farmers, this darkly delicious fruit is still appreciated, particularly by guests at Goldstone Hall, during the annual Damson feast.

The feast, is not so much a tradition revived as one established by John Cushing who is joint proprietor of Goldstone Hall with his mother Helen Ward, who is from a farming family. He started the feasts over 10 years ago as a celebration of the fruit which is served with other local foods that are at their best in late autumn.

John, whose country house hotel is tucked away amid lovely gardens in a country lane a few miles south of Market Drayton, says there are several stories about why the damson was so popular in Shropshire, where it still flourishes in hedgerows and gardens.

"One is that the damson was brought here from Damascus by the Crusaders, and it is feasible, an army for the Holy War was raised round here."

This versatile little plum caught on and was prized as much for the colourful dye it produced as for its culinary qualities. "Mill masters used to come to the Damson Fairs held at Market Drayton to buy the fruit to dye wool and cotton with, until chemical dyes took over," says John. "The fairs ended in the 1950s.

"It is a pity because the damsons provided a good income. My mother can remember the damson harvest in her childhood and the family myth is that it brought enough money to pay school fees for a year for the four children."

Cottagers hoped the crop would fetch enough to cover a years rent.

But even in modern times the damsons can earn their keep. At Goldstone Hall, the Damson Feasts held on two nights at the end of October, draw around 120 diners. "The damsons only cost the cost of picking them and the lads on the staff usually do that. This year the crop was poor as the weather had been a bit too dry to swell the fruit," said John, who is married with two children. He has run the hotel for 14 years but formerly it was his mothers and stepfathers home.

When Mrs Ward was widowed she thought she might do b&b in the big old house and applied for a drinks licence. "I thought no one would want to stay if they couldnt get a drink," she recalls. At that time John was working for Express Dairies after gaining a degree in food science at Reading. "I wanted to run my own business but I wanted the experience of working for a large company first," says John who helped his mother establish a restaurant at Goldstone Hall. Eventually, with the help of a COSIRA grant, the eight bedrooms were refurbished in fitting period style.

&#42 Hotel money

"Hotels are very effective at bringing money into a rural area, particularly through employment," says John, whose hotel attracts many wedding parties and company bookings. "We employ five or six people full time and 30 to 40 in total and other local businesses, like the newsagents, benefit too".

The hotel has a three star rating. It also has two rosettes for food. For the Damson Feast, where the damsons were used as a compote, in muffins, as sorbet and as damson gin, head chef Carl Fitzgerald-Bloomer, as usual, sourced many of the ingredients locally. These included the rabbit and pheasant for the terrine, geese from a nearby village for the main course, and potatoes from the farm next door. Even the damson gin served after the six course feast was made at the hotel.

"The damson gin is made just like sloe gin. Last year we made 10gal. If you can resist drinking it for four years, it goes clear and tastes rather like Amaretto, taking its flavour from the damson stones," says Carl, who really enjoys cooking the feast, and the other "special" dinners held at the hall. These include the Clive of India Banquet (he was a local boy) and a Candlemass supper, when wild boar is served and a flaming spotted dick makes an impressive pud. On New Years Eve, guests will be treated to the Goldstone Gold Rush, when the prospect is a glittering menu which starts with a lucky dip for gold nuggets and ends with champagne at midnight.

"The feasts are good for promoting the hotel, Shropshire produce and the county in general," says John, who takes pride in serving good food.

And it doesnt hurt to remind people that there was home-grown fruit before kiwis, kumquats, star fruit, lychees and all the other imported exotica pushed the likes of damsons to the back of the supermarket shelf.

&#8226 Inquiries: (01630-661202).

John Cushing picks fruit fit for a feast. This years annual celebration of this little plum included a damson compote served with roast goose and damson muffin with gingerbread icecream, hedgerow sorbet and sabayon sauce.