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Do you like plums? I do, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing. This year, we have a glut. I have never seen the trees so loaded with them. Some branches are so weighed down with fruit that they touch the ground. Other, smaller ones have snapped under the weight. We can’t possibly use all this fruit, so, sadly, a lot of it ends up on the compost heap, but not before the birds – jays and blackbirds in particular – have had their share.
It’s difficult to know exactly why the trees are so prolific this year, but a mild, damp winter and a warm spring are probably contributing factors. The plum blossom was magnificent in the early spring. Every tree was covered in a froth of white, and the absence of frost allowed the fruit to set. In some years, a late frost has withered the tiny, young plums.
Confusingly, plums are called prunes in French. We think of prunes as those wrinkly black things whose digestive properties are so widely promoted. But in France, what we call prunes are pruneaux. Still with me?
Parts of Southwest France are renowned for their plums, which are dried in special wind tunnels and sold as pruneaux. The climate and soil around Agen (Lot-et-Garonne) particularly favour their cultivation, and les pruneaux d’Agen are one of the area’s major products.
Plum trees grow naturally here in the hedgerows, but, of course, they are also cultivated. The trees were brought to the Mediterranean from China via the Silk Road. The Romans then brought them to southern France.
Later, in the 12th century, monks returning from the Third Crusade had the idea of grafting the local variety onto rootstock from Syria. This produced a new variety of plum with a delicate skin and a deep mauve colour, la prune d’Ente.
Once dried, either in the sun or in bread ovens, the prunes were transported by gabarre (flat-bottomed boat) along the Garonne from Agen to Bordeaux. Because they were easy to store and rich in vitamins and minerals, prunes formed an important part of mariners’ diets.
Prunes are also an important ingredient of savoury and sweet dishes. Filet mignon de porc aux pruneaux (pork fillet with prunes) is a classic French dish. Or you can use rabbit.
When we moved here, a double row of plum trees marched down our front lawn, no doubt planted some years previously by farmer predecessors. They were something of a nuisance in a glut year – une année de prunes. They quickly rotted, attracting hornets and wasps, and were easily trodden into the grass, making mowing a nightmare. Fortunately, they were old and died off, so we dug out the roots.
However, our neighbours had a use for the excess fruit: making vieille prune (plum liquor). Madame F had inherited the distilling rights from her father. Once, Monsieur F took us to a travelling still to see their plums (and ours) being distilled. Madame F died a few years ago.
We were ceremoniously presented with a bottle of vieille prune every year, often in a plastic water bottle, to the point that we had a cupboard full of them. The SF quite likes it, but you can only drink a small amount at once. It’s too strong for me.
It’s customary to finish a meal at a fête with a glass of vieille prune. Sometimes this is poured into the dregs of the coffee. Or you can dunk a sugar lump into the neat liquor and suck it (faire le canard).
We don’t make jam or chutney, so we donate some of our plums to friends. But the SF makes a mean plum pie. And the plums are just about ripe, so it will be time for that seasonal treat very soon. But we’d need to eat an awful lot of plum pies to get through this year’s crop.
Do you have suggestions for using plums?
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