Damson plums make some damn fine plum pie

Damson jam

Except during our brief jaunt to Michigan, Gourmandistan has not seen many plums this year. While both of us remember plums picked from Kentucky trees in our youths, we don’t see them often in the markets—and we’ve been too lazy to ask the farmers why. (Though should any of you be reading this, we’d be happy to hear about it.) But we spotted a basket labeled “damson plums” at last week’s market and decided to ask about them. Our question turned into a plea from the salesperson, who feared he had not heard his mother correctly and might have possibly misspelled “damson.” Obvious bookworms that we are, we assured the young man his letters were correct and, seeing as we would get no further ideas about damsons from him, purchased some and walked away.

Damson plums

Michelle, ever the better researcher, turned to her cookbooks and the Internet to see what might be made of this particular plum. (Steve, who was satisfying himself with some of the season’s last peaches, allowed her to proceed.) It seems damsons have a long and mystically fuzzy heritage from Britain, their name evolving from a corruption of “Damascene” as Britons believed the original fruits may have arrived from the Syrian city. (The scientists at Wikipedia would have one believe otherwise.) She also found that damsons are currently somewhat uncommon here in the U.S., and considered too tart to eat out of hand. (Steve, slurping down peaches, did not seem to care.)

Coming across a recipe for Damson Plum Pie in In Pursuit of Flavor, a 1988 cookbook by the great Edna Lewis, Michelle saw that she first had to make plum jam. Since jam-making has kind of been Michelle’s favorite jam this summer (often accompanied by this eternal hit playing on our tiny kitchen TV), she decided to give it a try.

Damson plum jam

Steve was attracted by the chance to make a pâte brisée with lard based on Miss Lewis’ recipe. Michelle decided a less porky taste would be more to her liking, so Steve compromised with half lard, half butter.

Damson plum pie

The jam-making went fairly smoothly, as Michelle has had plenty of experience and (supposedly to enhance flavor) the plums did not require pitting before cooking into jam. Once the preserves were done Steve made the crust, and we were off to a pie. Damson jam did indeed turn out to be quite tart, with a plummy undertone we quite enjoyed. The pie itself seemed a less sweet, more purple chess pie to our palates, again with the delightful taste of damson.

Damson plum pie

We’re not sure when we’ll next see damsons at our markets, or whether their name will be spelled correctly. But we will definitely remember this pie—and quite possibly that half-lard crust may be showing up in Gourmandistan again, lack of damsons be damned.


  • Servings: makes one 9-inch tart
  • Print

(adapted from Edna Lewis’ In Pursuit of Flavor)


  • 1 lb. damson plums
  • 12 oz. sugar

Pierce each plum a few times with an ice pick and put them in a pot. Sprinkle sugar over and let sit overnight.

The next day, heat the plums and sugar over medium heat, stirring. Bring to a boil. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture reaches 220° F on a candy thermometer.

Remove from heat and let sit until completely cooled. Once cooled, remove the seeds.


  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 TB butter, frozen and chopped in small pieces
  • 3 TB lard, frozen and chopped in small pieces
  • 1-1/2 TB (or more) ice water

Put the flour and salt into a food processor. Add half the butter and lard to the dry ingredients. Pulse 2-3 times. Add the remaining butter and lard. Pulse a few more times, until the mix begins to look like roughly crushed cracker crumbs. Add the ice-cold water a bit at a time, pulsing quickly, until the crumbs barely hold together.

Pour the dough onto a piece of waxed paper and gently pat into a rough disk. Chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Remove the disk and roll out to fit a 9″ pie or tart pan. Press into the pan and prick the bottom and sides well with a fork. Place the pan in the refrigerator for another hour, or for a shorter time in the freezer.

Pre-bake the crust, filled with aluminum foil weighed down with dried beans or pie weights, for 15 minutes in a 350° oven. Remove the foil and weights and bake for 5 minutes more. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack.


  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 c. light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 TB melted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 3/4 c. damson plum preserves

Beat eggs in a mixing bowl with a whisk. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Pour into partially-baked crust. Bake at 350° for about 45 minutes, until set.



  1. Looks good! I didn’t know damsons were a rarity in the US – they’re quite common in the UK and as you say have a rich, tart flavour that’s unbeatable. We’re still waiting the the ones of our tree to ripen – can’t wait!

    • Thanks, Linda! I think that people have damson trees in their yards here, but it’s rare to see the fruits at markets. I wish I had such a tree, but it undoubtedly would have gone the way of all the other fruit trees we planted when we moved here 20 years ago. That is to say, eaten by the deer!

      • Believe it or not, we actually had one killed by mice! The little varmints managed to ring-bark a sapling. Then there are the deer, the rabbits, the pheasants, the pigeons … it’s like a Disney film in our garden sometimes and they’re all feasting on our produce. Grrr.

  2. That looks good enough for Agent Cooper 😉
    I use damsons to make dam sloe gin, when i can’t get any sloes. There’s not much difference in taste but damsons are sweeter, so less sugar is required.

  3. Jean Turner

    Mom made lots of Damson preserves (as did Aunt Coza). Your great-grandparents, James and Mary Soyars, had a number of Damson trees. We didn’t have any at home. I always loved Damson preserves but do not remember any Damson pies. Hope you save me some of the preserves when we visit on the 30th. (Dad)

  4. Steve and Michelle–I just picked up a book called LARD. Old recipes about using lard for baking etc. I’ve been reading how it went out of favor, and now is having a resurgence. I’m glad you guys used it in your crust. Very flaky, right?

    • Oh, how fun! Now that we can get good lard (not that gross stuff they sell in the grocery store), it’s fun (and delicious!) to use it. Yeah, it’s pretty flaky. Mostly I think it’s short.

  5. Oh, wow! We both have plum jams on our blogs right now. I’ve not yet told you this before, so I’ll take the opportunity to do so now. I so admire your jam-making abilities, because I secretly (well, it was a secret until now) cannot can things. OK, I *can* can (ha), but I choose not to because I’m too damn lazy. So refrigerator jams and 1-2 weeks of fruity bliss is all I can manage.

    Now this pie looks so divine. If I can find some damson plums, I’ll make it, but I reckon the jam for it can probably be made with another plum and less sugar (but it will still have to be a plum on the tart side so that enough sugar can be used to set the jam)… I love the tart-fruity punch that the plum must give the filling and that brownish purple filling is wildly attractive to me.

    • Here’s a little secret. I never actually can anything anymore. It heats up the kitchen too much. (Steve is very anti-air conditioning!) Plus, I’m always terrified of killing someone. As my mom suggested to me years ago, I just put the jam in sterilized jars, leaving plenty of space for expansion and freeze it. Yes, that’s easy to say when you live in the country and have 2 freezers in the garage. But, even a city person can freeze a few jars. 🙂 And we’ve had some 2 years old (found in the back of the freezer) that tasted just fine. (Sadly, I made 2 huge batches of damson preserves for my parents this weekend and it all turned out too thick. I should have believed that 220° on the thermometer, but I didn’t…)

  6. I’m sure I haven’t seen any of these in a long time, which is funny because the photo reminded me of seeing them as a kid in Michigan – their color gives them away. I wonder if they grow in New England. We did make jam out of leftover prune plums, which was delicious. The pie sounds wonderful, especially when you have someone else to whip up the crust. Ken

    • I never came across any prune plums this summer. 😦 It was fun to find these, though. So tart! Steve is the master crust-maker. I am far too impatient and always rush it and/or put in too much liquid.

  7. These plums make a beautiful colour jam. I keep on making then with the yellow plums which give a pretty ugly colour, lol, so should try this (next season I suppose…).

  8. That’s so interesting – I never knew about the root of the word Damson. One fruit I definitely can’t get here…. so crave all the more. Lovely tart/

  9. Richard

    Just found these old posts by accident, I have so many quality damsons this year I can’t cope! Ky connection is total coincidence–they grow beautifully here.

    • Steve

      We saw plenty at our local market this morning, are currently in possession of several pounds and quite looking forward to more pies and jam!

  10. Wanda

    My mother made damson pie and it was my absolute favorite. I liked it best cold and was guilty of turning one upside down right inside the refrigerator as a teenager! Also guilty of eating said pie right then and there, most of it anyway! (Steve would understand!) I do not remember her ever making jam or preserves. She cooked down the plums and added a LOT of sugar, thickened that with some flour and put it in a double crust. My oh my, I am feeling nostalgic and hungry! I was raised in Hopkins County KY which is Western KY. My mother was of German, Dutch and British ancestry so perhaps it was passed down to her. One of the best pies ever.

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