This time of year, I get the vague sense that I am busy and also doing nothing at all, nothing pressing or of great import. If you were to ask me what I’m up to, my answer would be unclear, my voice might trail off and I’d point up at the building we’re passing and marvel at the integration of classical architectural elements. Subject deftly changed.
We’re just after a two-week Easter break and it's May in France, which means little gets done, or you just begin to get into a rhythm and then there it is, another national holiday in the middle of your week, and so we close maybe just for the day but actually let’s go ahead and take Thursday too, and while we’re at it Friday, because that’s just logical, I mean if we’re going to Provence it makes no sense to spend just two days there.
And although I am peering at the world through a haze of late springtime allergies — tortured, and taunted, by every cruel blade of grass and attempting to scratch my eyes out — my taste buds are still firing on all cylinders, thank the gods.
In the spirit of the season, then, let’s lighten the load a bit. Turn to pleasures of the flesh. And humor.
|exhibit A: Why do they call you the Picasso of Boxing? You just have to ask my opponents! Ha!|
You know your French is progressing when you get a good pun. It’s why I always love visits with my belle-famille, Mamy and Didier: I really feel immersed in the culture and language, and my French seems to reach another level. For example, I understood why we all laughed recently when I happily reported, on returning from an adorable bookstore in the little town of Minerve, that I’d bought a romain. My albeit slight error in pronunciation meant I was going to read a Roman. (These novels are crazy.)
But when I’m by myself, like at the market, I know something’s really clicking. It happened a few weeks ago as I stood next to my favorite prune monger, sometimes the sole reason I navigate the crowds of the Sunday farmers’ market at St. Aubin.
I’m standing there, the market elbow-to-elbow with people as usual, and there’s this character hanging about, chatting people up. He’s yakking away to the world in general, waxing on about prunes (I assume) and their health benefits (I think?).
Bonjour, he introduces himself. Je m’appelle Bruno. Bruno d'Agen.
I smiled: Brilliant. Right at my level. Not bad, sir; not bad at all. (If you didn’t get it just hang tight. You will in a moment.)
It’s a nice segue in fact, because I’ve been wanting to introduce you to these prunes, the world’s most mouth-wateringly luscious.
Prunes? you protest. But aren’t those for the old and infirm, for when things aren’t (ahem) running right? Oh dear me no. Non, non, et NON, as one might say here. These are different. These alter lives.
Before we go further then, a word of warning. Fortunately (I suppose), our medium is digital and your life won’t yet change in the permanent way mine did when my lips touched these for the first time; but if you live in Toulouse, or when you visit (ahem), you will try them and you might end up falling in love with the first person you meet thereafter, they’re that good. Your standards will soar, and all other prunes will wither in comparison. You might even misplace your affection and fall in love with me. At any rate, you’ll never look back.
|our favorite Bruno.|
Then of course there are the prunes. The word prune in French means plum, versus pruneau, which means prune — the plural of which is pruneaux. Pronounced “prune-o”. Rhymes with Brun-o. See where we’re going?
The prunes with the protected label of IGP — Indication Géographique Protégée — are called Pruneaux d’Agen. Agen lies along the Garonne river about midway between Toulouse and Bordeaux. I personally know it best as the town I like to gaze at as I temporarily bid farewell to my wifi en route to Bordeaux or Paris by train. But it is also the heart of the region which officially produces the Pruneaux d'Agen.
This basin provides the climate and soil necessary for the Ente plum orchards to produce these gorgeous babies. It includes portions of six départements in the southwest: Lot-et-Garonne (the largest, accounting for two-thirds of total production — and where Agen lies), Dordogne, Gironde, Tarn-et-Garonne, Gers, and Lot. As with wines with certain appellations and protections, only the prunes from this region (all processing must take place here also) and which follow strict standards get the privilege of calling themselves Pruneaux d’agee.
Yes, there is an official site; yes, it is called pruneau.fr. There is even a quiz there you can take. Here’s my favorite question:
What time of day should one eat Agen prunes?
a) only at midday
b) only in the evening
c) any time one feels like it! [exclamation point mine]
Agen prunes must be made from plums harvested when fully ripe, and the trees must be pruned annually following a specific set of standards. After an elaborate drying and sorting process, the plums are then rehydrated so that they are soft and supple and ready to eat. They’re looking for a water content of 35% max.
I personally have a weakness for the prunes known as mi-cuit — I’ve also seen them called demi-sechée, or half-dried — which are mouthwateringly moist. For them, the drying process is halted at the final rehydration level for normal prunes, so rather than dry them to 23% or less, they’re stopped sooner.
And my farmer at the Sunday market is a specialist, based in Moissac, which is in the Tarn-et-Garonne département. They are friendly, and generous, and they concentrate their efforts on just a few crops throughout the year, and those they do really well. They go from prunes in the winter to cherries, starting now, then plums all summer and later, grapes.
The possibilities for how to eat these prunes, as the website will tell you, are endless. Sweet, savory, all by themselves. Hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, main dishes, baked anything, snacks, desserts. A bunch of famous chefs weigh in with their favorite recipes, like “dombes quail with Agen prunes stuffed with foie gras, wild herbs, and a prune jelly sheet”, “bulgur and gorgonzola risotta with Agen prunes”, or “smoked eel emulsion with Agen prune crumble”. This is serious business.
I cook with them, I eat them at breakfast, I bring them to coffee with my friends so they can be seduced and transformed like I was. I make desserts with them, like this beautiful gateau from smittenkitchen; I put them in muffins as a kind of puree. I brought them to my figure drawing group and watched my friends’ eyes widen with surprised pleasure as they popped them into their mouths. I’m going to soak them in Armagnac soon; just watch me.
|an interpretation of SK’s magic apple plum cobbler|
I’ll leave you to your exploring, because I have to get going — the pharmacy’s closing soon and tomorrow’s another holiday, and I’m desperate for eye drops.
Before I go, a parting gift. Bruno at the market inspired me: I adapted his joke into one of my own, which I hereby officially enter into the lexicon. Accessible only perhaps to the cross-culturally aware such as yourselves — I prefer to think of it as a joke with terroir — but no matter. Off we go.
B. Who’s there?
B. Bruno who?
A. Bruno d’Agen!
Cut to roomful of laughter.
|Robert Roubelet, our hero from Moissac|