These are not your Grandmother’s prunes!

From the Ente plum to the Agen prune, much has to be done to obtain the tender, tasty, juicy delicacy that’s come to be known as the “black gold of Aquitaine”.  The Agen prunes are made from a variety of plums called “Prune d’Ente“, and for export the prunes are also called prune d’Ente.  As with most products at Great Ciao the quality is determined by the details, taste the difference.

The most famous prune in the world, the pruneau d’Agen, has been a celebrated product of southwest France since at least the 1500s and the Ente plums have been officially protected since 2002 by the European Union.  Agen is a commune in Aquitaine of south-western France.  It lies on the river Garonne 84miles southeast of Bordeaux and is the birthplace of the prune d’Agen.

For centuries, prune production was essentially carried out empirically as a cottage industry.  Now even as production has been mechanized, and grafts of the Ente plum can grow in California, there are differences.

How to determine ripeness? Most growers determine the time to harvest by measuring the softness of the fruit, which is linked to sweetness; growers aim to pick when resistance to pressure, applied to the fruit with a penetrometer, falls to between three and four pounds. But in France, growers measure the sweetness directly with a refractometer, looking for 21 degrees Brix — each degree equaling approximately 1 percent sugar — and sometimes achieving much more. (Ripeness often used to be determined by the plums themselves, which fall from the tree as they become ripe. Growers would spread straw on the ground as a cushion to prevent bruising.)

How to pick? Even while most harvesting of the Agen plum orchards is now mechanized, the machines, which shake the trees and catch the fruit, pass four to seven times, as the fruit ripens. In California, similar machines harvest much more aggressively, passing just once to gather all the fruit from the tree.

How to preserve? In California and France mechanical driers reduce the moisture to 21 to 23 percent for keeping.  In a recent innovation that quickly became universal in Agen, the prunes are rehydrated to 35 percent before packaging. This process gives a more luscious consistency, and there’s no longer a need to soak before use. Some prunes are packed with sorbic acid to preserve others are pasteurized at 158 degrees.  The product that we carry at Great Ciao is pasteurized rather than preserved with sorbic acid, giving a slightly darker color and a more concentrated, caramel flavor.

Does it all make a difference? From the climate to the final processing the differences between plums are many, and none are more obvious than the pit in vs. pitted.  Most California prunes are pitted, but only about half the French ones are. Although French technical experts say that last-minute pitting before packaging has no effect on flavor, Jean-Michel Delmas, a grower, farm-union activist, and historian of the pruneau d’Agen says, “a large part of the flavor comes from the presence of the pit. Without it, the plum loses the heart of its aroma.”

Ed Behr, in his periodical The Art of Eating, made a side-by-side comparison of some Agen prunes (pitted, no preservatives) with two California brands (pitted, with preservatives), the Agen were softer and moister, thinner-skinned, sweeter, with slightly fruitier, somewhat stronger flavor and a longer aftertaste.

Give these a try and make your own decision, we think you will like them.

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