I’ve always enjoyed prunes in various forms since I was a kid, long before it became fashionable to like dried plums and before food writers started telling us about all of the health benefits.
So, which country produces the best prunes? Of course, America is responsible for 70% of the worldwide production and they are very good; however, in the blind taste test I did with some fellow writers recently, the French Agen prunes won easily. The richer, fuller flavour of the Agen prunes convinced even people who don’t normally eat them to include them in their diet.
The plum variety grown in the Agen area is called Prunier d’Ente which originates from plum trees brought back from Damascus around 1150, by returning crusaders. These were first grown by the monks at Clairac Abby who later grafted on local plums to create the new variety called Ente. The name comes from the Old French verb “enter”, which means “graft”.
The monks were also the first to realise that the fruit can be kept for a year after being dried in the sun. Thus Pruneau d’Agen should properly be called Pruneau of Clairac! Even today this same variety is still prised because it has the right balance of sugar/acidity, and the strength of skin allows them to be dried without splitting and to be preserved without additives.
Prunes versus Plums
Usually, when you start talking about prunes most people ask, are there any differences between the varieties of plums used for prunes and the ones sold as fresh plums? Most prunes are freestone cultivars (the pit is easy to remove), whereas most other plums grown for fresh consumption are cling-stone (the pit is more difficult to remove).
In France, Agen prunes are held in the same high regard as foie gras and Armagnac. They are sought after by connoisseurs around the world and they even have their own museum.
However, in America this noble dried fruit has an image problem; so much so that California growers got permission in 2001 from the government to re-label them as dried plums to help raise sales domestically.
The quality of Agen prunes is reflected in the method the farmers use to collect the plums, using specially equipped tractors that shake the trees so only the ripe fruit falls onto the umbrella type mats that are attached to the machines. Because of this collection method, the harvesting takes a month to complete so fruit is at the peak of ripeness when taken.
Originally, the prunes were dried in the sun, but then monks found that drying them in a bread oven at low temperatures gave better results. By the middle ages, plum farmers used similar methods and would heat their ovens using bundles of brambles and Hawthorn, which would be swept out before the plums were put into the oven to dry.
Today the prunes are washed, sorted by size and then placed onto drying racks in single layers. It takes about three pounds of plums to make one of the prunes. The racks are placed on a tall trolley and wheeled into the drying tunnels (ovens) for 20-24 hours, reaching a temperature of 75 C. They are then re-sorted and any broken prunes are used to make prune brandy which the French call eau-de-vie.
Before the prunes are sold, they are partly re-hydrated and plumped in steam or dipped into a vat of water, to bring the moisture content to a maximum of 35 percent. There are 46 grades of size and quality for Agen prunes, with the largest yielding about 30 to a pound, about the same as a California extra-large.
The Health Benefits
Prunes are high in fibre (40mg per 100g) and good for the digestion. They are also an excellent natural aid to slimming because the high fibre content helps to sate the appetite and therefore they make a great healthy snack between meals.
Prunes are a good source of potassium, an electrolyte that assists in a variety of vital bodily functions. This mineral helps with digestion, heart rhythm, nerve impulses, and muscle contractions, as well as blood pressure. This can help fight hypertension and decrease the risk of strokes and cardiovascular disease. Since the body doesn’t naturally produce potassium, consuming prunes can help you avoid deficiencies.
They are also a rich source of iron to help prevent anaemia, which occurs when the body doesn’t have sufficient healthy red blood cells. Shortness of breath, irritability, and fatigue are all signs of mild anaemia and an iron deficiency.
Prunes also contain magnesium which naturally helps fight stress and anxiety, so are highly recommended for students and people in stressful jobs. According to studies, dried prunes are an important source of the mineral Boron which can help build strong bones and muscles.
The Prune Museum
When I first heard that there was a museum dedicated to the history of prunes I was lukewarm about the idea, but since I was in the area, I thought I should at least take a look. What I found was far more interesting than I had imaged. Located on a picturesque bend in the river at Lafitte-sur-Lot in south-western France.
The museum has a fascinating collection of artifacts dating back more than 150 years: the oldest known surviving drying oven, a large collection of tools, equipment and art involved in the farming, drying, advertising and selling of prunes, plus a huge old alembic copper still on wheels, that was used to distill Eau-de-vie (plum brandy) directly in the fields!
For visitors who’d prefer to be outdoors rather than walking around a museum, the site has a 15,000 square metre garden maze which will keep the kids amused:
Amazingly enough, the maze is made out of maize, or should I say hedges of corn which are as dense as boxwood. Every summer from June 15 to September 30, the labyrinth is reborn with a new design, a new configuration, with a new theme and of course new enigmas.
Besides offering interesting insights into the history of prune making, this is also a working farm which continues to harvest plums each year.
We enjoyed exploring the rooms of the museum and we were each given a guide (printed in English) to help us to understand the exhibits. Then we browsed around the gift shop and its many different snacks, candies and drinks that can be made from just one fruit.
Before our tasting (which is part of the tour) we were invited to watch a short optional film about how the plums are harvested, dried and the many delicious handmade items they also make at the farm.
The tasting sealed the deal, particularly the addictive prunes smothered in quality dark chocolate! Of course, we bought various delicious souvenirs to take home with us. We rounded off our trip with some great coffee and homemade dark chocolate and prune ice cream, which I highly recommend.
The Prune Show August 26th-28th
The town of Agen celebrates the harvest each year with a three-day festival called The Prune Show. This event takes place in late August and is well worth checking out if you plan to be in France around that time. The whole town gathers and celebrates this long weekend of partying with a series of free concerts, street entertainers and fruit tastings to honour the importance of this noble fruit.
A farm with a moat
Domaine de Ferrussac is a farm that produces delicious prunes, sun-dried tomatoes, apples, strawberries and nuts. The farm has a quaint little farm shop which is well worth finding, not just for the wonderful gourmet treats but it’s a chance to see the fortified, fourteenth-century mill that is part of the farmhouse. The mill existed in the twelfth century but the later fortification added a moat on three sides and the tower has slits for archers to fire from. The chapel Notre Dame de Ferrussac is also located on the estate and probably rests on the foundations of a Gallo-Roman villa, which is also worth taking a look at.
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9 thoughts on “The Black Gold of Agen”
I was already a fan of Agen prunes but now I know more, from this informative piece, I am a super-fan!
I also now curious about making eau-de-vie from surplus plums…
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I guess you’ll be shopping for a copper still then?
LOL. What a sweet memory you’ve evoked. My late father always liked prunes. We (his kids) never touched his stash. ( We didn’t want to. Looked like shriveled up huge grapes. (O.o) ) I never knew they had such an exotic history. Maybe my dad knew and kept it a secret. 🙂
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I love how food stories evoke memories like no other subject, thank you for sharing.
Prune brandy? Oh marvelous!
I do like prunes — or so I learned in my 30s when I finally got up the nerve to eat one. It seems like we are taught to *not* like them. I love them re-hydrated in brandy, yet I didn’t realize there was actual prune brandy. Delightful post, Kevin. Hugs.
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Thanks again for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment that helps spur me on when my working week seems too long. If you like the combination of prunes and brandy then you must try my Chocolate Bread & Pudding Pudding. The earthy richness of prunes goes particularly well with dark chocolate, here is the link.
This is so interesting. I blush to tell you that one of my favorite things is pruned plums in heavy syrup. MMMmmmmm. I’ll do better, now that I’ve read this 🙂
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No need to blush Melissa, I have wonderful childhood memories of tinned prunes in heavy syrup served with vanilla custard. These days the drying process of prunes makes using them easier to use, whereas back then dried prunes were very hard and usually needed to be soaked before use.
You’ve made me feel better! I’ll look for dried prunes next time I’m in the grocery store.
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