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The Prune route of France

There is a museum near Agen in south-west France that will move you in a way no museum has moved you before.

You’ll feel your body’s bile production surge, blood sugar level stabilize, ossification parameters dramatically improve and cholesterol rapidly plummet. You may even feel the toxins being flushed away. The relaxation is tangible. The soluble fibre palpable.

You don’t get any of that at the Louvre.

Or by staring up at the Sistine ceiling.

The New York Met and Tate London have nothing on Musée du Pruneau on the Berino-Matinet farm in Lafitte-sur-Lot in Lot-et-Garonne.

“Awe” is the only word for it.

It’s the only way you can describe the feeling you get when you find yourself in the presence of the world’s two oldest prunes.

The star attractions and most prized of the world’s first – and so far only – prune museum, are some elderly and very frail plums. They are the oldest and most wizened prunes in captivity. Experts believe them to be priceless. Although they will never be auctioned. Food safety regulations assure that.

“Le Musée du Pruneau Gourmand” houses a unique collection of prune-related paraphernalia. Its famous pickled relics, which are kept in an airtight and thief-proof cabinet to deter private collectors (yes really), date back to 1857. They are local celebrities. Although no longer edible, they are of great historical significance.

Agen

Agen is the centre of France’s plum-growing and prune-producing industry. This is a region that is steeped in prunes. Every September, millions of purple, velvety soft plums are shaken into huge, inverted umbrellas in the Lot-et-Garonne region. Agen plums have a high sugar content which allows them to fully ripen on the tree – without fermenting around the stone. Around 30% of them are made into prunes. Agen produces an average of 45,000 tonnes of prunes each year.

“La Route du Pruneau” is an official signposted tourist route which takes you around prune-dependent villages like Beauville, Bonaguil, Lacapelle-Biron, Mouflanquin, Villeneuve-sur-Lot and the medieval village of Pujols which has a weekly market at which plums and prunes take centre stage. Local prune farms offer tastings to the passing trade.  In some towns there are “prune boutiques” selling a wide variety of pruney things. Think prunes covered in dark chocolate and perhaps a sprinkling of Espelette pepper, cream of prunes, and prunes immersed in rum, Eau de vie de Prune d’Ente and Pruneaux à l’Armagnac. Ditch those memories of prunes and cold custard you may have had at school – prunes are cool!

Agen holds an annual “Great Prune Show” during the last weekend in August. The Town Hall at Place Esquirol is bathed in prune-coloured light. The main street is turned into Le Boulevard des Pruneaux and prunes are given away for free.

Prunes are everywhere. You half expect to go to your hotel room and find a prune waiting for you on your pillow.

At the shop of the Maitre Prunille factory in Casseneuil they will tell you ‘we French treasure our prunes. They are in our blood. Our mothers brought us up with prune bread, glazed tarts, soft custard filled pastries, petit fours filled with prunes. At Christmas, the turkey is always stuffed with prunes.’

The surprisingly fascinating history of the prune

In French “une prune” is, in fact, a plum and a prune is “un pruneau”. The Agen prune, which received its official appellation in the eighteenth century, was first known as the “Prune de Bordeaux” because it was shipped in great quantities to England and Holland from the port of Bordeaux.

Plum seeds first made their way to France from China, transported by merchants via the Silk Road. The Romans planted plum trees in Gaul and Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Clairac (in the Lot-et-Garonne) brought back the plum trees that we know, on their return from the Crusades in the 12th century. One of the most popular varieties today is prune d´Ente, which comes from the old French word ‘enter’, which means to graft, due to the monks grafting the trees to make them bear fruit. Prune cultivation developed in the 16th century.

Agen prunes are the only dried fruit to have an European Union PGI (Protection Geographical Indication Origine).

Prunes, prunes and more prunes

Throughout the region of Lot-et-Garonne, you will find prune dishes on menus in most restaurants. Prune bread, prune tajines, potato and prune vegetable dishes, and pretty much everything from guinea fowl breasts, duck and geese to mushrooms stuffed with prunes. And for dessert, prune crumble with the local Armagnac grape is rather delicious. They’re also popular at the bottom of a glass of hot wine at Christmas.

To create a prune, cooking time is determined by the plum’s sugar level. Usually this is between 18-26 hours at 75 deg C. Two centuries ago they were dried over brambles, then in a fournière, or bread oven. After drying, called le machonnage, the prunes are graded. It takes 3 kilos of plums to produce one kilo of prunes.

At Confiserie Boisson sweet shop in the backstreets of Agen, six generations of the Boisson family has been bathing and boiling prunes in big brass pots and oven-drying them since 1835. The shop is crammed with prune conserves, jams, bon bons and their speciality, chocolate-truffle prunes with prune paste.

One visit to this shop, and you’ll become a regular…

Did you know: Prunes were introduced to the USA by Frenchman Louis Pellier from Agen, who went in search of California gold. His gold mining venture was a failure and he turned to farming. In 1850, Pellier grafted a cutting of d’Agen rootstock onto wild plum trees growing in the Santa Clara Valley. And the rest as they say is history…

Useful sites: Musee-du-pruneau.com; en.destination-agen.com

Recipe for Far Breton – a custard tart with prunes, speciality of Brittany

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