The Shropshire Prune, a type of damson, is a subspecies of the plum, and is thought to be a Hybridization of the bullace (the wild plum). The damson has a distinguished heritage, having been introduced to the country by the Romans. The first written record of the damson dates back to 1676.
The Shropshire Prune is a small (1cm x 1 cm) drupaceous, clingstone fruit, oval, and pointed at one end. Uncooked, its skin is dark blue to indigo, its flesh yellow-green. Cooked, the flesh transforms into a dazzling deep red. The damson tree bears magnificent white blossom in April, and the fruits, if the weather is kind, are ready for harvest from September to October. Even the appearance of the remarkable blossom is a cause for celebration in local communities. In terms of flavour, the Shropshire Prune is the essence of ‘plum’, and its versatility means it is excellent for both sweet dishes, such as jams and jellies, and savoury dishes, such as chutneys and relishes and in this case Damson Gin
The Shropshire Prune trees are a distinctive feature of the local Shropshire landscape, marking the changing seasons through the gnarled form of ancient trees in winter, blossom in spring and deep purple fruits in autumn. Mixed hedgerows including the Shropshire Prune are typical of the area and provide valuable food for livestock and birds.
The Shropshire Prune was common in Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Montgomeryshire in orchards and as a hedgerow tree. A similar damson is also present in The Lake District where it is believed to have hybridized slightly differently to suit the local microclimate. Many Shropshire Prune trees were planted in the 19th century to provide dye. The damson crop was sent, for example, to the Lancashire cotton mills for uniforms, to Kidderminster for the carpet trade, and to Ludlow for the glove trade. Mr. Mereeidith who supplies Damsons to make the Chilton Damson Gin remembers as a child helping lifting hessian sacks of oozing Damsons onto the train at Neen Sollars to go onto Kidderminster where they were used as dye for the carpet industry.
The Shropshire Prune is no longer used for dye. This lack of demand meant that for decades, Shropshire Prune trees have not been planted on a large scale. It also accounts, to a large extent, for why so many of the old orchards have been neglected or grubbed up. Similarly, there is currently no significant commercial culinary use of the Shropshire Prune. Supply (or production) and demand are inextricably linked. If the Shropshire Prune is not being grown, consumers won’t ask for it; if consumers don’t ask for it, it won’t be grown.
Culturally, knowledge and usage of the Shropshire Prune in domestic settings tends to be more common in older people, and there is a danger that this knowledge will die out unless we can capture it now and build on it.
In 2010 a group of local interested members from Ludlow Slow Food group were successful in getting the Shropshire Prune to be accepted into the Slow Food “Ark of Taste”. The Ark of Taste operates to protect and further promote endangered food and drink products around the world.
The Group is working to raise awareness of this most delicious autumn fruit. Their goal is to protect and nurture the Shropshire Prune by encouraging food producers, retailers and consumers to identify the fruit by its variety, just as apples are identified by their variety. .They are also encouraging individuals to plant Shropshire Prune orchards and Chilton Damson Gin has its own orchard of 30 trees.