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Food and drink producers

Food and drink producers

Until the formation of the Westmorland Damson Association in 1996 brought renewed interest in this little fruit, there was general agreement that the damson’s purple patch in Cumbria was in the first half of the 20th century. Originating in an area around Damascus in present day Syria, this member of the plum family most likely found its way into England through the Romans. Damson stones have been found in archaeological digs at their ancient camps and settlements across the country.

By the middle of the 17th century damson trees were certainly in evidence in Westmorland where they thrived on the well-drained, shallow, limestone soils in an area to the south west of Kendal: the Lyth and Winster valleys. 60 or 70 years ago the blossom on the estimated 30-40,000 damson trees attracted huge numbers of people, many making the journey from Lancashire mill towns to see the spectacle.

After the harvest in September tons of damsons were despatched to jam-making factories in Lancashire and Yorkshire, while Kendal’s ‘Damson Saturday’ in October saw growers and farmers piling into the town to sell damsons to the public.

By the 1970s the numbers of the trees had declined significantly. Changing farming practices, changing eating habits, less people on the land willing or available to carry out the arduous task of picking the fruit, and jam makers sourcing fruit elsewhere all played a part in the demise of the orchards.

Peter Cartmell, whose family had lived in the area for centuries, witnessed the decline and was determined to do something about it. So in 1996 he and a number of enthusiasts formed the Westmorland Damson Association. Its aim was to restore the orchards to their deserved glory, promote the cultivation and use of Westmorland damsons, extend the market for damson products and look after the interest of local growers.

20 years on the picture is quite different. Damsons are used by local producers in the making of jam, jelly, chutney, pickles, wine, beer, gin, syrups, vinegars, cake, bread, chocolate, ice cream, sorbets, cheese, pies and more.

Cowmire Hall, High Cup Wines, Hawkshead Relish, Claire’s Handmade, Friendly Food and Drink, Savin Hill Farm, Hawkshead Brewery and Stringers Beer are some of the producer names to look out for.

You’ll also find that a number of local pubs like the Masons Arms at Strawberry Bank (pic) use damsons in their food as well. And every year in April, Damson Day celebrates the revival of this wonderful fruit in the Lyth and Winster valleys.

Wednesday, 02 March 2016

The Beer District

Those who lived through the (keg) bitter years of Watneys Red Barrel, Whitbread Tankard and Courage Tavern could never have imagined that 40-50 years later in Britain there would be such a choice of real ales and craft beers as there is now. ‘Real ale is on a roll,’ says the 2016 edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide and Cumbria provides as good an example of this phenomenon as anywhere. There are now over 1400 real ale breweries in the country (the biggest number since the 1930s and 1940s), with almost 40 of them in Cumbria.

That figure includes Yates, the oldest independent (1986), Hawkshead, the biggest independent and Coniston, producer of two supreme champion beers of Britain in Bluebird Bitter and No 9 Barley Wine. Coniston, Dent and Cumbrian Legendary breweries have lovely locations and like Barngates, Carlisle Brewing Co, Watermill, Winster Valley and Hesket Newmarket have close links to or are located next to pubs.

A small number such as Jennings in Cockermouth, Hawkshead and Hesket Newmarket do brewery tours; Eden and Hardknott are well known for their craft beers. Although there are plenty of food and farm shops where you can buy bottled Cumbrian beers - Rheged near Penrith and Booths stores have a good choice - the best places to savour the likes of Loweswater Gold, T’Owd Tup, Doris’ 90th, Tag Lag, Corby Blonde and Dog’th Vader are in the cracking pubs of Cumbria. And, like its small breweries, the county is not short of those either.

The Northern Beer Festival is at the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal from March 11-13

The Northern Craft Beer Festival is at Hawkshead Brewery, Staveley from March 18-20.

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