A message from Ariane
Today is a strange food holiday: Four Prunes Day. I believe it refers to the idea that four prunes a day will keep the doctor away. But I am happy to take the opportunity on this official holiday to share my affection for this little wrinkly fruit with you.
Sadly, prunes seem to be the punch line to a joke in America, valued only for their fiber, not flavor. But in Gascony, where there are about 3 million plum trees, we know that prunes are special. Prunes have been part of the gastronomic heritage of Southwest France for centuries.
Originally brought by the Greeks and Romans from China, and planted all through the Mediterranean, the plum holds a special place in the city of Agen, where the famous Prune d’Ente trees produce luscious plums that are well-suited to drying. These are the renowned pruneaux d’Agen, or Agen prunes.
Vintage postcard of harvest in Agen
These particular plum trees were developed in the 13th century by Benedictine monks who crossed the existing trees with a variety the Crusaders brought home from Syria. The tree survived harsh winters, world wars and triumphed in the 21st century, when it was recognized in 2002 by the EU with the Indication Géographique Protégée.
Sorting plums in Agen
Everyone in France knows that Agen is the place for the sweetest, juiciest, plumpest prunes, and a visit there would reveal a myriad of ways to eat prunes.
Agen prunes in their natural setting
At D’Artagnan, we have incorporated prunes into several products that reflect the flavors of my area of France: Duck Terrine Mousquetaire, which is a coarse-ground pâté of duck (the livers, too), pork meat, a dash of Armagnac and studded with prunes.
D’Artagnan Duck Terrine Mousquetaire
And our famous French Kisses, which are prunes that have been marinated in Armagnac and then stuffed with mousse of foie gras. They are the perfect amuse bouche, and are a favorite at parties. I wouldn’t be caught without them on New Year’s Eve.
D’Artagnan French Kisses
Which reminds me of a fun story. Back in the early days of D’Artagnan, I was invited by Michel Richard to help honor Julia Child on her 80th birthday. He invited many prominent chefs and 500 guests to his Los Angeles restaurant, Citrus, for a feast. With so many meals to prepare, the mise en place (prep work) was being done all over town. I was supposed to work at the hot foie gras station. I had also brought foie gras mousse and pitted prunes soaked in Armagnac with me from New Jersey, so I could make French Kisses.
That morning the kitchen was a mess. Celebrated chefs such as Jean-Louis Palladin, Vincent Guerithault and Thomas Keller were working like maniacs to get their dishes organized. TV reporters and journalists followed them around, asking questions, trying to get a sound bite or quote. Cameras flashed.
I found a little corner to work in the hallway, and started by draining the Armagnac from the soaked prunes into Styrofoam cups, which were the only thing I could find to use. As Laurent Manrique and I piped the mousse into the drained prunes, the smell of foie gras and Armagnac filled the air. Daniel Boulud, standing nearby, got a whiff of the Armagnac-prune juice and took a judicious sip from one of the cups.
Just then the late Pierre Franey came ambling down the hall and asked Daniel what we was drinking. “Coffee,” he said with an obvious wink, and offered the cup to Franey. Without thinking, Franey knocked back a swig of fruity Armagnac, and at 10 A.M. got a true French kiss. And the best part was that the live TV cameras were in tow behind him. So after his first big gulp he tried to hide his surprise, with some difficulty. By the second gulp he got it right and kept a straight face.
Prunes soaked in Armagnac are a common item served in Gascony, and when sipped with some of Franey’s “coffee,” they make a lovely after dinner treat.
And for a truly luxurious dessert, try my father’s recipe for prune and Armagnac ice cream. Are you sensing that prunes and Armagnac were made for each other? It’s common knowledge in Gascony.
Prune and Armagnac Ice Cream, photo via flickr user Ulterior Epicure
Ages ago my father, Chef André Daguin, not only pioneered this now-famous recipe, but also was the first to use liquid nitrogen in his kitchen to make it. This was before anyone heard of molecular gastronomy, of course. Get started on this 2 weeks before you want to eat it, so the prunes can really marinate in the Armagnac.
ANDRE DAGUIN’S VANILLA ICE CREAM WITH PRUNES AND ARMAGNAC
Four to six servings – Preparation time: 25 minutes - Standing time: At least 2 weeks - Chilling time: Several hours - Freezing time: Varies
16 pitted soft prunes
1 cup Armagnac
1 cup whole milk
1 long vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise, giving four quarters—or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks
1/2 to 3/4 cup natural wildflower honey to taste
Pinch of salt
1 cup whipping cream
1. Two weeks or more in advance, place prunes in a large clean jar or crock. Add Armagnac to cover. Cover jar or crock and set aside in a cool place to steep.
2. When ready to make ice cream, measure out 1 cup moderately packed prunes and fill up remainder of cup with Armagnac; set aside. Use remaining prunes for garnish.
3. Scald milk with vanilla bean (but not vanilla extract); set aside. Whisk egg yolks over very low heat in medium, nonreactive saucepan until warm. Continue whisking, adding honey gradually. When all honey is added and honey has begun to dissolve, remove saucepan from heat. Do not boil. Whisk in hot milk and salt.
4. Return saucepan to low heat. Cook and stir until custard is thick enough to coat a spoon heavily, about 170 to 180 degrees on an instant-registering thermometer. Do not boil. Immediately strain mixture into a bowl. Stir in cream and vanilla extract if using.
5. Refrigerate, covered, until very cold. Then beat very vigorously with whisk or electric beaters.
6. Strain custard mixture into an ice cream freezer. Follow manufacturer`s directions for freezing. When ice cream is just beginning to set, drop in prunes one by one (while machine is still in operation) and drizzle in Armagnac. Continue freezing until ice cream is firm.
7. To serve, scoop out ice cream, top with an extra prune, and drizzle some Armagnac over it.
You can cook savory dishes with prunes, too. Roasted with meats like pork, lamb, rabbit, or game, prunes can offer a bit of sweetness. A favorite little treat of mine is a prune wrapped in bacon, either duck or pig variety work just fine.
Stuffed Pork Loin with Prunes and Porcini, recipe at dartagnan.com
Whether coated in chocolate, stuffed with foie gras or Roquefort cheese, soaked in Armagnac, baked in pies and pastries, or simply eaten out of hand on a cheese board, the prune is a ubiquitous part of life in Agen, and a beloved fruit of Southwest France. So Happy Four Prunes Day! I hope you will enjoy some prunes today, and if you have a little Armagnac, wash them down with that elixir. You can’t go wrong.