Revisiting a family favorite, Damson plums, with a tried and true cordial recipe

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By: Lisa Harris

Lisa Harris/Food Chronicles

I don’t know why, but whenever someone mentions Damson plums, I think of my grandmother.

It’s one of those strong, perplexing memories where I don’t know whether Damson plums were something I actually ate as a young child, or something I simply heard many stories about throughout my life.

What I do know is that Damson plums are grown in Michigan, and they can be found at the South Bend Farmer’s Market in late summer. I know this because I saw them at the Hetler Farms and Greenhouses stall a couple of years ago. It was as if my grandmother was there and hooked me by the arm, led me over to them, and exclaimed, “See? These are Damson plums!”

If my grandmother loved them enough to turn them into jelly, then it was time for me to find out what was so endearing about them. So I picked up one of the plums and asked Mark Hetler if they were only good for jelly, or if people actually ate them fresh.

His eyes sparkled and he smiled as he told me that they were tart, not particularly good for eating raw, but they make a great cordial. He’s been making Damson cordials for about eight years now, and his first few batches were not very good, but he fiddled with the sugar and eventually found a good balance.

What a great idea, using the flavors of a fruit to make something other than jelly, or a pie, or some other kind of cooked dessert. I do love a good dessert – and jelly – but there’s something intriguing about coaxing raw flavors into a beverage.

Mark promptly pulled out a piece of paper, jotted down his recipe and handed it over with the cautionary note that it wouldn’t be ready until Christmas.

Having to wait for something is not common these days. We are always in a hurry, and many people become quite edgy if something takes too long. But I tend to be a bit contrary to that way of thinking.

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” –Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time with Buddhists and have sat for hours in meditation. Or, maybe it’s because I have learned how some healing components of plants can be extracted over time with alcohol. Perhaps there’s something medicinal about those plums…

Whatever the reason, I was willing to discover what these purple skinned fruits had to offer, given the chance to express themselves in their own time.

So I bought the plums, and I rinsed them, and pricked holes in each one. I put them in glass jars combined with sugar and vodka, and I waited until Christmas. In the meantime, whenever I saw Mark at the market we gave each other a knowing look. We were both waiting for something magical to happen.

Christmas did come around, eventually, and I popped open one of the jars. It was a lovely color. Kind of a soft, reddish-violet. It tasted quite sweet because of the amount of sugar, and was very good sipped on ice. The flavors are a rich fruity plum, with a little bit of tang and a hint of spice.

Believe me when I say it’s worth the wait. And it makes a nice after-dinner beverage around the holidays. I like to make enough to share with friends.

Mark Hetler and his brother Curt have been farming together since 1983, growing a variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers and other plants. In two years, they will reach a milestone of continuing a family farm that was started by their grandfather in 1917 — one hundred years.

They don’t actually grow the Damson plums themselves, but Mark liked making the cordial so he decided to carry some that are grown locally on a farm near his own place. You can buy them from the Hetler stall at the South Bend Farmers’ Market. They ripen around late August to early September, depending on the weather conditions.

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