A Christmas Damson Plum Tart Recipe
Much as we do today, Shakespeare’s contemporaries craved all sorts of sweet desserts at festival times. This entry for “a receipte for damsons to bake at Christmastide or anie other plum” from Folger MS V.a.21, fol. 146 explicitly mentions that this plum tart was to be prepared during the Christmas season, which lasted twelve days from Christmas Eve (December 24) to the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6).
a receipte for damsons to bake at
Christmastide or anie other plum
Take 3 pound of damsons & a lb of sugar a
pint of water put that sugar & that water into
a preserving skillett when it boyleth skimm
it cleane Let it a cooling then slit the
skin of the damsons put them into the Sirrop
let them stand on the fire a stewing 2 howres
together then take them vp & let them
stand by till the next day then doe as before
2 howres till the last of an howre then
let it boyle & when they are cold put them
vp into gully pottes for that use this will keep
till Christmastide masse when you use them to put
them into the Tart made as thin as you
can raise it because it must not be much
baked put more Sugar into them when you
This recipe calls specifically for Damson plums, although “anie other plum” may be substituted. According to early modern scholar and food historian Joan Fitzpatrick, the Damson plum is a small, dark purple fruit used even today to make jams, preserves, and wine. The Folger’s receipt book of Lady Anne Carr includes a recipe for damson wine.
The Damson tart recipe instructs the cook to combine three pounds of the fruit with a whole pound of sugar to make preserves. The preserves are then put up in “gully [jelly] pottes for that use this will keep till Christmastide masse when you use them to put them into the Tart.”
Regula Ysejin provides a modernized recipe for a prune tart in her blog post, “The Prune Tarts at Tudor Court.” Bakers working at court added butter, suet, and eggs to pastry recipes to pastry dough, resulting in its becoming more delicate and versatile. Whether or not the prune tart was a favorite of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I is open to speculation, but it certainly would have been served during feasts.
Even Shakespeare mentions the delectable Damson plum in Henry VI, Part 2. When Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, asks the blind and lame Sander Simpcox how he happened to injure himself falling out of a tree, Simpcox replies, “Alas, good master, my wife desired some damsons, and made me climb, with danger of my life.” (2.1.115) Clearly Damson plums were so delicious that people were even willing to risk injury to obtain them!