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Helping a damson in distress

If your father had perished falling from a damson tree, would you still want three orchards of them? Hartley Trotter does.

The question of his father was lobbed into our conversation by Mr. Trotter to support his point that, as well as all the other problems, damson-growing is dangerous. None the less, the damsons have been in the Lyth Valley for a long time, and so have the Trotters. Indeed, the damsons have no more renowned custodian than Hartley Trotter.

Damsons have been through their bad times, but may have found a new purpose.

Damsons have been through their bad times, but may have found a new purpose. They are said to have come from Damascus (hence the name: Damascene being boiled down to damson), been brought by the Crusaders, and planted by monks from Furness Abbey. Today, their white blossoms welcome Easter visitors to Windermere and the Lake District, and their yellowing leaves dapple the Lyth Valley in autumn.

What, though, to do with the fruits? Once, their purple skins made dyes for the wool trade in Kendal, the next valley west. Then, during the last war and afterwards, the aromatic, intense flesh (a plum with a hint of bitter cherry) of the fruit was used to make jam in Leeds and Manchester. Efficient orchards have been nibbled away by more profitable grazing lands; there is no longer cheap labour to harvest The damson, and the little fruit defy picking by machine. Jam-makers can buy pulp cheaper on world markets and, anyway, Mr. Trotter says no one eats afternoon tea any more, so who needs jam?

The biggest damson enthusiasts these days are the builfinches and fieldmice. They crack open the stones and eat the kernels. In the damson-and-hazelnut hedgerows that lattice the valley you can find neat little stores of stones, assembled by prudent mice.

"Have some damson gin," Mrs. Trotter says. The gin is a dark maroon, with an immense aroma, as rich as port and thick as tomato juice (3 1b of damsons, 1Ib of sugar and a bottle of gin). Make it at harvest time, in September, keep it in a dark cupboard and strain, ready for use at Christmas.

Everybody in the valley makes damson gin, she says. Some evens make damson whisky. Mrs. Trotter estimates that there are around 50 farmers with orchards, although many of the trees are past their best. Only a handful of growers are still planting new trees.

The Trotters sell their fruit to shops in the towns - Kendal, Cockermouth and Carlisle - and the damsons are mainly bought by people for home-made wine.

The Lyth Valley damsons are of much bigger than a black desert grape. and shaped like an egg. The Trotters say they have a more intense flavour than those grown in Cheshire, Hereford or Kent. This year, frost at blossom time restricted the crop.

The poor crop could not have come at a worse time for Nigel Stevenson who, for the past 12 years, has run the Masons Arms with his wile and sister-in-law. The pub, on Strawberry Bank, over the ridge in the Winster Valley, is a whitewashed house, with slate floors, a leaded fireplace and, on the walls, five originals by Alfred Wainwright, the guru of fell walking "bought before he was a TV personality."

Unlike some publicans, Mr. Stevenson is keenly interested in beer and over the years, has assembled a range of brews renowned far and wide. The Masons' has more than 100 brews in the bottle, ranging from the hoppy Siagha lager of Thailand to a dark Weizenbier (made with wheat) from Franconia and a coriander-seasoned Belgian white'. Like all true beer-lovers Mr. Stevenson is fascinated by the brews of Belgium.

There was still a piece of the puzzle missing: a fruit beer.

Earlier this year, he decided that he should supplement his vast range of beers by brewing some of his own "to complete the jigsaw puzzle." He spent 7000 on a four-barrel brewhouse and started making a very happy bitter called Amazon and a malty special named Great Northern? (The question mark is included in the name, as in the title of the book by Arthur Ransome, who lived up the hill with Trotsky's former secretary.) There was still a piece of the puzzle missing: a fruit beer. In the nick of time, Mr. Stevenson had the bright idea of buying the last 200 pounds of damsons in the valley this year.

"Beer" means starting off with barley malt, water and hops. If there is fruit, it must come later. He made a brew of two or three barrels and, a few days ago, added the damsons to create a secondary fermentation.

Being something of a new idea, the quantities and procedure are down to a little bit of guesswork. Mr. Stevenson thinks the secondary fermentation will take a week or two, and hopes then to cask the beer for its maturation.

If all goes well, it should be ready in the bottle in early December. He will sell some in his pub, and possibly wholesale what is left.

Will this new cottage industry restore the bloom of youth to the Lyth Valley damson orchards? Hartley Trotter is cautious. "Let's taste it first," he says. Let us indeed. For a verdict, watch the Update column on this page.

The Mason's Arms, Strawberry Bank Cartmel Fell, Cumbria (04488 486).

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: OCT 13, 1990
In: The Independent

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