I have a Damson plum tree in my side yard that isn’t much to look at. It is small, and often in the summer in our hot valley sun the trunk looks like it is suffering from a bad sunburn with a dry and cracked surface.
But the marvelous thing about this tree is that it is a heavy bearer of small, very sour plums. Sometimes it produces so many they look like bunches of grapes hanging on the branches. Inedible on the tree, off the tree they make the best preserves I have ever eaten, with a tangy flavor that is hard to describe — and oh, so delicious.
Damson plums were carried wherever the Roman legions went and that is how they were introduced to England. They came to America with the colonists and were highly prized.
I had never heard of this tree until I purchased Edna Lewis’ cookbook “The Taste of Country Cooking.” It was her high praise of the tree that led me to plant one, and I have never regretted the decision. This cookbook is wonderful as much for her descriptions of rural life and food in Virginia as for the recipes (althought some of the methods she describes for canning and preserving wouldn’t pass muster today). Edna Lewis died last year, and I named the tree in my yard the Edna Lewis Memorial Plum Tree.
One of the ways I use the Damson preserves is in clafouti (“kla-foo-TEE”). In France, clafoutis is made with cherries with pits. If the French can spit pits so can I. The recipe that follows substitutes canned cherries or even pears for the plums that I use.
1 ¼ cups milk
2/3 cup sugar, divided
1 tbs vanilla
1/8 tsp salt
½ cup flour
3 cups canned, pitted cherries or three pears, peeled, quartered, cored and sliced
powdered sugar for top
Preheat oven to 350
Combine the milk, 1/3 cup sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt and flour, and blend.
Butter an 8-cup baking dish, and pour a ¼-inch layer in baking dish. Reserve the remaining batter.
Put dish in oven about 10 minutes, until a film of batter sets in the pan, but the mixture should not be baked through.
Distribute the cherries or pear slices in the partially set batter. Sprinkle the remaining sugar and pour the remaining batter over the top.
Bake in the oven until the clafouti is puffed and brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm.
I have recently learned that if you use fruits other than cherries it should be called a flognarde. However, it is much more fun to say clafouti (a kind of oral gymnastics with the foo exhaled past the lips and a tongue flick with the t), and because I am not French I will continue to call it clafouti. It is very good with heavy cream poured over the top.
Lee Riggs is a Zen priest living in Shasta County who cooked and baked for many years at San Francisco Zen Center. He is a devoted gardener. His simple credo is that butter is better and that you should be able to taste the hops in beer.