"The prune is a dried plum, full of sunshine and sweetness." Jane Grigson
I had to open a large packet of prunes for my Persian chicken dish yesterday, so now I have a large jar plus a few more prunes to use up. So I needed to find something else to do with them, and with that aim in mind I thought today's topic should be prunes. It was going to be relatively short and sweet, but I think there may well be too much to say about prunes, so I'll just begin and see how far I get.
To begin at the beginning. Well two beginnings really. The first is my childhood, when prunes were mostly known as juice in a medicine like bottle and dished out when constipated. Indeed the association was always with constipation. Which means that the majority of people are (or were) not fans. Maggie Beer gives an amusing, even enlightening, example of this in her book Maggie's Harvest.
"There is nothing like adding the word 'prune' to the menu to see the orders slow down. For months I included the thinnest, richest chocolate tart on the Pheasant Farm Restaurant menu - shiny with just-made ganache, its superfine pastry melted in the mouth - and I served it alongside alcohol-soaked prunes. It was a chocoholic's dream, yet we almost had to give it away. So we re-worked the menu, omitting any mention of the prunes, and it sold like hot-cakes (so to speak). The really interesting thing was that the prunes, which still came with the tart, were seldom left." Maggie Beer
And for the second beginning a very brief tale which made me realise, that after a long-haul flight across the world one can sometimes end up mildly constipated. Not enough to bother but still ... Anyway one year in France we met up with some Australian friends who had just made that flight before joining us for a week down near the Spanish border. As we met them they decreed that the first priority was to buy some prunes. Something they always did after a long-haul flight. So we went into the local 'everything' shop and there - amazingly - were some of the most delicious looking prunes that I have ever seen. A large bag was purchased and we all dug in. Well they're a bit like sweets really aren't they with "notes of liquorice and vanilla, lumps of fudgy, intensely sweet dried plums" as Nigel Slater says. The curious thing is that they have recently been decreed to be completely lacking in laxative properties by the European Food Safety Agency. Now do we believe this? They are, however, now decreed to be wonderful for bones:
"A study in 2011 found women who had eaten 10 prunes a day for a year had "significantly higher" bone mineral density." The Guardian
Which is actually rather too many to eat a day I think. Did they really put women through this? The Guardian did the sums - over 3,000 prunes in a year. They didn't mention the laxative effect.
Nevertheless the reputation as a laxative can be off-putting, and indeed the Americans - well the Californians - who are now the world's largest producers of prunes have renamed them dried plums. They are never referred to as prunes. Incidentally the French for plum is 'prune' and for prunes 'pruneaux', which is also curious because 'eau' means water. And interestingly even Jane Grigson seems to think that the Californian prunes are as good as the 'top of the line' Agen prunes from the Loire valley. Well they come from the same tree - the French Agen plum tree was replanted in California back in the mid nineteenth century. The other thing about this particular plum is that it is never eaten as a plum, it is just grown to make prunes, which are dried and then, these days, slightly rehydrated to make them juicier. And, honestly, they are delicious.
The reputation of prunes in England though was further destroyed by all the awful things the English cooks did with them. Instead of taking medicinal juice for constipation, one could have been served stewed prunes, sometimes combined with lumpy rice pudding:
"One must ignore what modern puritans of the last century or two have done to prunes, the dreadful alliances they have made between prunes and rice, or prunes and custard powder." Jane Grigson
Way back in Medieval times though prunes were often used, and mixed in sweet and savoury dishes, often with spices, and Elizabeth David gives the example of Black Tart Stuff from a very old cookbook (1660) by Robert May, in which the prunes are soaked and slowly baked in red wine, then mixed with similarly soaked raisins and currants, puréed and made into a fool with cream. Mind you she just floats the cream on top of the purée - a fool mixes it all together loosely. I think the purée can also be used for tarts.
Also sort of medieval, and also Middle-Eastern are sweetmeats. And in France - not the birthplace of the prune - well the plum - that's the Middle-East - in Tours, previously the centre of the prune industry, they make sweetmeats called pruneaux fourrées - stuffed prunes. Would you believe, prunes stuffed with prunes?
"In what could be the hardest-sell on the planet, I always try to talk people who come to Paris into trying Pruneaux d’Agen fourrés, which are prunes stuffed with prunes ... To make them, the pit of each prune is yanked out with long-nose pliers, then the prune is refilled to the point of nearly bursting with smooth prune puree, sometimes with a touch of Armagnac. You’ll find the filling dialed-up with almond cream or chocolate or orange zest in some cases, but I prefer nature, or plain. Because that’s the kind of guy I am." David Lebovitz
They used to be sold in these rather beautiful handmade baskets, but the ladies who made them have gone now, and besides it was probably too expensive and time consuming so now they come in tins. They are not only stuffed with just prunes, Sometimes almonds, or oranges or other flavourings are added. And away from Tours, people stuff all manner of things, both sweet and savoury into prunes:
"When it comes to puddings or desserts made with prunes, remember the Middle-Eastern origin of the cultivated plum, and concentrate on richness. Walnuts, almonds, rum, wine, cream - they are the key to success." Jane Grigson
Maggie Beer creates her own 'sweetmeat' following that principle:
"Try making your own sweetmeats by soaking prunes in port overnight, then draining them. Chop the prunes with some roasted almonds or walnuts, then fold through dark couverture chocolate melted with a little cream and pour into a tin. When set, cut into tiny cubes and serve with coffee. Rich, dark chocolate and prunes are a combination that is meant to be." Maggie Beer
Which sort of brings me back to Delia and her two prune chocolate and Armagnac desserts which I talked about recently. Indeed if you go to Delia's website you will find a large number of absolutely delicious looking dessert options, often with Armagnac, which seems to pair very well with prunes, as does the other local French wine - Vouvray.
And speaking of alcohol, Jane Grigson says:
"when added to a bottle of rough marc, prunes soften the taste and and make a classy drink out of a merely alcoholic one."
It's getting late and I really have barely touched the surface on the topic of prunes, but I will stop there, because I have to go and cook the dinner. So I will come back to them some time soon. The cooks I have so far consulted on the topic are the 'oldies' - my gurus from way back - but the modern cooks are fully into prunes as well. Their turn will come, although the 'oldies' still have plenty to say on the subject.
So even though I sort of started at the beginning, I see I have really only been talking about the end of a meal, whereas prunes can be eaten anywhere in a meal and indeed in any meal.
"They may intensify the flavour of meat dishes, make a contrast to the delicacy of some fish without submerging them, balance the richness of puff pastry in tarts, and promote reckless extravagance in the matter of sweetmeats, where stuffed with apricots and kirsch in a pale orange purée." Jane Grigson
POSTSCRIPT ON YESTERDAY'S SOMETHING PERSIAN
Not a total success this one. I don't really think David liked it much at all - too sweet for him. And I have to say that although the cucumber salad tasted lovely - and yes I had to use cranberries - it did not look very lovely. Why is it that food stylists can make shaved veggies look so buoyant? They must stiffen them with something. My cucumber shards just collapsed in a damp clinging heap. Maybe the carrot rice was a bit sweet - perhaps should have squeezed some lemon juice over it. The stew was interesting though and I do think the prunes were the best part of it really. Anyway here are two not very good photos of my poor attempt.