Sweet, glossy and bursting with flavour, Agen prunes have been part of south-western France’s gastronomic history since the 12th century. During that time, crusaders returned back from Syria with damson plum trees which the Bendectine monks of Clairac, not far from Agen, crossed with their own, local plum variety. The result was a new kind of plum which they called the Ente plum. Since then, the plum has been used to produce the famous pruneaux d’Agen, named after the city from which the prunes were shipped all over Europe. Today, more than half of the production of the fruit is still taking place in the Lot-et-Garonne.
Between mid-August and mid-September, the dark purple plums are harvested. By this time, they are so ripe and sun-drenched that the trees either naturally drop their fruits or need nothing more than a gentle shake. After careful sorting, the best fruits are dried and preserved for year-round use.
Agen prunes are not only delicious, but they are also extremely healthy and versatile. Full of fibre, iron and antioxidants, they can be eaten as a nutritious snack or incorporated into a wide variety of recipes. Try them in your oatmeal or cereals, in hearty cold-weather stews and in desserts such as in this wonderful cake which really is perfect for the holidays. In the recipe, I also use Armagnac, a perfect partner to these gorgeous dried fruits.
130g Agen Prunes (without pit), roughly chopped
2 tbsps Armagnac
175g all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
75g ground almonds
125g soft butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
Soak the chopped prunes in the Armagnac and set aside while you get on with the rest of the recipe.
Preheat the oven to 170°C. Butter a round 22 cm cake tin and line the bottom with a circle of baking paper. Dust the sides with a little flour, shaking off any excess.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Add in the ground almonds and stir to combine.
Using a hand-held or standing mixer, beat the butter and the sugar until they form a light paste. Add in the eggs, one by one, while continuing to beat. Add the vanilla. Gently fold the dry ingredients through the wet using a wooden spoon. Add the prunes along with the Armagnac and fold again.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for approximately 45 minutes. About 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time, check to see if your cake is browning too rapidly. Should that be the case, cover with a sheet of aluminum foil and continue to cook. Check for doneness by inserting a wooden skewer into the center of the cake. It should come out clean.
Paola, Queen of French Cuisine!
Paola Westbeek is a food, wine and travel writer with a good dose of joie de vivre. She is passionate about French cooking, old-fashioned chansons, Rembrandt and life. Paola is available for all kinds of recipe development, food and wine writing, and culinary advice. For more information visit: inmylife-paola.blogspot.com, Twitter @la_douce_vie