Louise Pickford prepares one of her all-time favourite dishes
Preserving fruits in France has, for centuries, been a domestic pastime as well as a very profitable commercial industry. Prunes are probably one of the most successfully preserved fruits of all. A little confusingly, a fresh plum in France is called a prune whereas in the UK and other English-speaking countries, it is the dried fruit that we call a prune and buy already dried from the supermarket.
Prunes come from a variety of plum known as prunus domestica or European prune. It has a deep-purple skin, the stone is easily detached from the flesh meaning it is a freestone fruit (as opposed to clingstone as many other plum varieties are) and it has a particularly high sugar content. This allows the plum to be dried in the sun (or in a drying machine) without fermenting, which would leave it sour and worthless. Once dried, the prune barely resembles the fruit it was before and what we are left with is an inky black, moist, soft and richly flavoured fruit that can be eaten straight from the pack
The fruit is first soaked in armagnac before being bathed in a layer of rich creamy custard and baked in a sweet pastry shell
or used in many different types of dishes, both sweet and savoury.
The best prunes in France come from several regions in the south of the country and perhaps the best and most well known are from Agen in Lot-et-Garonne. Pruneau d’Agen is the name given to this particular variety, and it was this prune that was first exported to California in the 19th century. Today they produce the world’s largest supply of prunes and ridiculously enough, many we buy in France are from California!
Known as the fruit that will keep you ‘regular’, prunes are packed full of goodness. They are a good source of fibre and are high in vitamin C and vitamin K.
Although I love prunes with meat, especially rabbit and pork, I’m powerless when it comes to a good custard tart, and what better than combining the two? Here the fruit is first soaked in armagnac before being bathed in a layer of rich creamy custard and baked in a sweet pastry shell. Served with crème fraîche, it’s a real delight.
I think prunes are a highly underrated and healthy fruit, and I hope that by sharing this recipe with you, I might go a small way towards spreading the word.
Louise Pickford is a food writer and stylist with more than 25 cookbooks to her name. She lives in Charente with her food and lifestyle photographer husband Ian Wallace.