Growing up in France, I certainly had plenty of opportunities to see, and taste, how prunes are used in French cooking. And unlike my American husband, who used to think that prunes should be dutifully stored next to aspirin and Pepto-Bismol, I knew that the famed "pruneaux dAgen" had more to offer than their medicinal properties... But when I first tried the prunes of the Château de Born, even I was amazed: never before had I eaten such a big, succulent, velvety textured prune! I wanted to know the secret of these delicacies and quickly made arrangements to meet with the producers. On our subsequent trip to France, Rick and I spent a whole day at the château, admiring the beautifully tended orchards, learning about the art of making prunes, and enjoying the hospitality of Madame Violet who told us about the castle and its specialties.
History at a glance... The Château de Born was built during the 12th century. Situated in the heart of the Lot et Garonne in the southwest of France, it was ruled either by the French or by the English.The area of Aquitaine became part of the kingdom of England when Eleonore of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, the English king of French origin in 1152. Neighborly quarrels and religious battles (the French being catholic and the English protestant) were daily routine for this impressive fortress throughout the Middle Ages. Then, as peace spread its wings over the land, the castle became a noblemans luxurious "country" home in the 17th century, a school by the end of the 19th century and finally the well-loved fairy-tale edifice it is today. The past has left its scars and only one fifth of the original buildings are still standing.
A Castle of Prunes. How is it that one of the largest fortresses of this region, that sheltered a knights family and household, 100 men on horseback and a whole army on foot became a peaceful prune-making farm? At the same time the château was being built, plums were introduced to the area by a gourmet crusader who brought back the seeds from Syria. He gave them to the monks who in turn cultivated them and cared for the little trees. Before long, plum trees were growing everywhere and the Lot et Garonne became famous for its prunes. The plums could be dried and kept over a long period of time when refrigerators did not exist and winter meant months with few fruits or vegetables. Prunes were almost as precious as salt and were used to bargain wages during the 15th century (hence the expression "travailler pour des prunes", i.e. to work for prunes). They remained so popular that during the 18th century young gents would offer them to woo the hearts of their beloved...
The famous Agen prunes are made from a variety of plums called "Prune dEnte". The name seems to come from the Latin word "entere" which means to graft (few fruit trees grow from a seed; they are mostly grafted one on another). The château is right in the middle of the main plum growing area where the climate and the rich soils nurture excellent quality fruit. From being one amongst the many plum growers, the Château de Born is now a model farm offering a unique high quality semi-dried prune. Over the years, the owners specialized in producing only large, top quality prunes superior in taste and texture, and by developing delicious recipes and products.
Why a semi-dried prune instead of a conventionally dried prune? Usually a plum is dried until it reaches 21-23% humidity.Try biting into one and you will have a very happy dentist! To make them edible, they need to be rehydrated with water (to which preservatives are often added) until they reach 35% humidity. They will have a strong caramel-like taste and dark colored flesh as the intensive drying will have caramelized the sugar in the fruit.
For a semi-dried prune, the drying process is stopped directly when the humidity level reaches 35%. No rehydration is necessary. The flesh remains honey-colored because the sugar does not caramelize. The moisture in the prune is 100% natural as no water is added after the drying. The taste is fresh and sweet, half-way between the fresh and dried fruit. And, most importantly, no preservatives are used. Until the fruits are packaged, they are stored in cold rooms. The sugar level in the fruit is so high that it never freezes and hardens: you can eat a "frozen" semi-dried prune immediately.
Quality control at every step. To guarantee the highest quality throughout its whole line of products, the Château de Born uses new, precision-making techniques to separate the top quality plums from the lesser quality ones even before the drying process begins. First, only fruits grown on the château grounds are used. The trees are not sprayed; instead booby-traps are put out against certain bugs. To harvest the plums, large growers rely on mechanical harvesters that indiscriminately collect all fruits at once, regardless of the stage of the ripeness. At the Château, each tree is harvested at least three separate times. They are gently shaken; the ripe fruit (and only the ripe fruit) falls onto straw which has been previously scattered and then the harvesters gather it from the ground, by hand, to avoid any bruising. The plums that are not up to the Châteaus standards will be dried traditionally and sold in bulk to another transformer. Plums are dried in hot-air ovens and it takes about 18 hours to dry a semi-dried prune. After the drying process, the prunes are hand checked twice by qualified personnel. Finally, once they have been accepted as top-quality, they will be stored in a cold room and only used according to the demand. The Château de Born does not stock large quantities of its finished products although their shelf life is of 3 years because it guarantees a freshness that only a small company can handle. As for the products, everything is "hand-made". Their chutney is stirred by hand, the prunes rubbed in prune brandy are rubbed by hand and prunes filled with cream of prune are stuffed, one by one, by hand. All these products are 100% natural, delicious and full of energy. Will they help you go to the bathroom? Yes and no. The laxative effect of a prune is due to the juice caused by the added water. Considering that there is no added water to a semi-dried prune, they wont have more effect than any other kind of fruit. But who needs an excuse to enjoy a healthy treat?
Some ideas with prunes. The prunes rubbed in prune brandy are jumbo size and pitted. The brandy enhances the taste and gives a delicious smell as you open the bag but does not make the prunes alcoholic (less than 0.5%). The following recipes are just a few illustrations of the versatility of prunes. Here are some suggestions for appetizers:
Wrap pitted prunes in a small piece of bacon, put them in a hot oven and serve.
Stuff pitted prunes with liver pâté or cream cheese and chives.
Fill pitted prunes with half a radish and some butter.
Prepare a mixture with half Roquefort and half butter. Spread over rye cocktail bread and top with a pitted prune.
Fill pitted prunes with Gruyère cheese, wrap in a piece of store-bought puff pastry, and set them in the oven until the dough is lightly colored.
Stuff the pitted prunes with roasted, lightly salted almonds.
Semi-dried pitted prunes can also be used as is on a pie. No "soaking" is necessary. The prune chutney is considered the Châteaus greatest specialty. This spicy and fruity condiment is delicious with game, duck, pork, lamb, curries, turkey, anything but beef. It can be served "straight" like a mustard or mixed in a sauce. The prunes filled with cream of prunes follow an old traditional recipe of southwestern France. They are a real delight with coffee at any time of the day.
Our recipes with prunes:
Fruity Lamb Brochettes-Brochettes d'Agneau Fruitées
Pork Roast with Prunes-Rôti de Porc aux Pruneaux
Rabbit with Prunes-Lapin aux Pruneaux
Flambéed Bananas with Prunes-Bananes flambés aux Pruneaux