A glut of plums

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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.  

Plum blossom in our back garden

Pruneaux

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.

Vieille prune

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?

You might also like:

Making eau de vie de prune

Absinthe friends

Walnuts and walnut recipes

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18 comments

  1. The man who distills & makes ´prune’ here gave us a little booklet about distilling with many suggestions for using the results of his machine. The best are for fruit liqueurs. We’ve made & tried all sorts, some nice & simple like with wild cherries, & some more recherché. It softens the impact of the hooch & is a pleasant way of entertaining friends after a meal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a good idea. We have been looking for ways to mitigate the strong flavour. My husband even tried vieille prune with tonic water! As you might imagine, not a great success…

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  2. Lovely to read this. We have just arrived to find our plum tree with a good crop but not the glut we had last year. We stewed them but the skins were very sharp however much sugar or honey we added. Chutney and jam worked well but best of all is straight off the tree.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s good to know you’re back, and I hope we can see you soon. We are still being rather careful, especially now with the influx of vacanciers, who are not always careful themselves…

      Everyone’s experience of plums seems to be different this year. Last year, we had very few. This year, I have never seen the trees so laden – only in our front garden, though. In the back garden, the yield is about average. I am no jam-maker, I’m afraid, but people on Facebook have been supplying some very interesting recipes for other ways of using surplus plums.

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  3. Lucky you – our stone fruit is decidedly meagre this year, no apricots or plums, and even the pear trees are not producing very much. I think it was down to the weather when the trees flowered. I love plums, and I would bottle them, cut in half, in a light sugar syrup with a few stones in each jar and a sliver of cinnamon bark. They make a fabulous (and quick) dessert and are wonderful reminders of summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting. Others have said the same about the lack of stone fruit. I think it must be very localised and, as you say, depend on the weather when the trees flowered. I remember we actually had some snow fall (having had none the whole winter) while the plum trees were flowering, but it didn’t seem to affect them. Your recipe sounds good: like a sort of compote, then. The French are great ones for bottling and preserving. Somehow, I have never got into the habit – I prefer to eat it all at once!!

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      • I learnt the habit of preserving from my grandmother in Germany – she literally had a room in her basement which was lined with shelves and full of jars of preserved food. It would all get eaten up!! When I do it myself I always think of her, although my store is very modest compared to hers. Opening a jar is a real treat, and unlike frozen food it requires no forward planning, nor energy to keep it preserved!

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        • I’m poor at doing anything like that, but French country people are generally very keen on bottling and preserving. The easy availability of all kinds of food at all times of year in the supermarkets has made us lazy! You’re quite right: opening a jar of something you have made yourself is such a treat.

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  4. Nigella Lawson’s Chinese plum sauce is great. I use it a lot to add a kick of extra flavour to stews and stir fry. It’s in the Domestic Goddess book, which is worth seeking out , lots of great recipes I use all the time, or I can send it to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve found the recipe, and it sounds great. Very versatile. I might not use so much chili, which is a personal preference, but it would certainly give a depth to all sorts of dishes.

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  5. How strange. We were just saying yesterday what a rotten year it’s going to be here for plums. Last year not even the birds, martens and badgers and foxes could make any headway on the windfalls. We ate ourselves sick with them and still they kept coming. This year, hardly anything. They’re mainly wild plums though and a few mirabelles.

    Liked by 1 person

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