It started with a plum smaller than my thumb.
I saw them as I was strolling through our local markets at Borough, trying to avoid the toasted raclette sandwich stall (my jeans are getting tight as it is). Those who have been will know it. You can smell it a mile a way. This sandwich deserves a postcode of its own. It’s more cheese than bread, with fat that streaks across your smile like the lipstick of a drunk clown.
It was when I was desperately looking elsewhere for distraction that I saw them.
Fee fie foe fum- I spy a tiny baby plum.
Damsons. “Best for preserves” my friendly local stall holder tells me. He goes on after he’s take a crunch of an heirloom apple. “Bit of a tart, really. Going cheap.”
Turns out he’s still talking about the plums. This relieves me. I haven’t quite got the hang of weekend wear here in London. I think some flat walking boots might help the situation.
But back to the plums. It might be my ovaries in overdrive- I’m finding it hard to leave behind anything with the word ‘baby’ attached to it at the moment… So away they come with us.
Damsons you say. Rather than being hapless things in distress; forgotten fruit, flailing in a bowl, these could be the hero of our dinner.
Tart and good with heat applied to them. I think they could help bring something else back from its fatty brink.
Wouldn’t you know it. The next stall along has boned and rolled ducks, going for a song. So that’s how on a bitterly cold and dreary night we ended up eating a damson duck salad.
And it was pretty darn good.
Damson duck salad
Shopping and foraging
6 eschallots or baby onions
2 duck breasts (or a rolled, boned duck. But the likelihood of you stumbling upon that is pretty rare I’m thinking).
A small head of cauliflower. Bonus points if it’s purple.
A bunch of radishes
A bunch of watercress
A handful of rocket
16 damson plums
Here’s how we roll
1.Preheat an oven to 180 degrees C or 350 F.
2. Take 2 parsnips. You want to invite them to the party because they’re a little nutty and woodsy and crisp up nicely when roasted. Mum, I know you hate them, so if I was making this for you I’d probably substitute for sweet potato. Peel the parsnips and cut them into batons.
3. Take 6 banana eschallots, or baby onions. Cut the tops off them, peel them and cut them in half.
4. 3 cloves of garlic and smash them with the back of a knife. In they go too.
5. Put in a dozen damsons, whole. The seeds will get scooped out afterwards. Add a good splash of olive oil and a good sprinkling of salt over the top.
6. In it goes to the oven for around 35 minutes, until the damsons have wilted under duress and the parsnip is crispy. You might want to shake the pan now and then.
7. Take the vegetables out and allow them to cool slightly. You don’t want them to be piping hot in the salad.
Duck and cauliflower
1. Here’s a truth. Cauliflower loves fat. By roasting the cauliflower in the same dish as the duck it sucks up the fat that the duck will throw off. If you add a couple more of the damsons in here it will help add some acidity to cut through some of the fat.
2. Take your boned, rolled duck, or your duck breast. Season it well with salt and pepper. If you have a cast iron pan like a Le Creuset that can handle being on the hob and in the oven, now’s the time to use it.
3. Start the duck, with the fattiest bit down in the pan so the fat renders off.
4. Once you’ve got a puddle of fat in the pan toss in the cauliflower florets and transfer it into the oven. The duck will only take around 12 minutes, depending on the thickness. Keep an eye on it.
5. There’s nothing worse than overcooked duck. If you’re worried, you can always take it out, let it rest for 10 minutes and check it. If it’s still too pink you can then finish it off in the pan again. This is a salad. It’s ok if the duck is in little chunks.
6. The cauliflower is going to need about 25 minutes in the oven once it’s taken a tumble around in the fat. You want it to be a little crispy on the top.
The leafy stuff
1. In a big bowl throw together a handful of picked watercress- you want this for a bitter kick. Also grab a big handful of rocket. Green is good. Add the circular slivers of about six radishes. These are great for more peppery crunch- and they just look so darn pretty. Then cut up another six damsons into slivers- mind the stones.
1. Now you want to cut the duck into little nuggets. Hopefully it will be rosy pink and slightly crusty on the outside. Toss it with the roasted vegetables, which will be stained pink by the plums. Scoop out the wilted damson flesh, leaving the stones behind. Toss everything together. Season it with salt and pepper.
2. Some toasted hazelnuts or almonds might also be a nice touch.
3. This hardly needs any dressing- the vegetables will still be glistening from the olive oil and the duck fat and the juices of the plums will help provide the acidity.
To be brutally honest, I was drinking a weak campari and pink grapefruit at the time I was making this. I added a little slosh to the bowl to finish it all off. Maybe I’ve been taking the adage of ‘one for me, one for the pot’ a little too far as of late.
I think a splash of good quality red wine vinegar would also be fine.
Serve in bowls, with a bottle of pinot noir.
Toast to the fact that sometimes good things come in very small packages.