Delia rekindles her love affair with France with a visit to the beautiful Lot valley, where the plums are sweet and ripe and you can 'smell prunes in the air'.
Photographs by Jason Lowe
Countries can be like friendships. There can be brief encounters that begin and end in just one visit, a time shared and then forgotten. Or there can be long and deepening relationships that go on revealing new and hidden depths, so that the friendship never loses its freshness, never stops growing closer and giving pleasure.
France and I are just like that. Over the years there's been an enduring relationship, and always something new to discover, to wonder at and make deeper claims on my affections. This was never more true than on my visit to the Lot valley in Gascony. It was hard to imagine there could be yet more undiscovered beauty, but there it was, stretched out before me. I felt as if I was the first person to discover it.
The place seemed to be a forgotten back road, a hidden valley that rests along the banks of a gentle yet stately river called the Lot, a small tributary of a much larger but less interesting river called the Garonne. The beauty of this region is that somehow it has managed to stay untarnished by modern times. The rugged, sometimes thickly wooded slopes on either side of the river still have medieval villages perched on the heights, from which you can gaze down at the whole sweep of the river, itself still covered with time-worn stone bridges. Everything looks very old and very underpopulated.
It's early September and the first signs that summer is about to retreat are seen in the now-drooping heads of the sunflowers and the warm rusting tones of the maize crop awaiting harvest. But down in the valley it's a supremely special time of year, because it's prune time. It is right here that prunes – or rather those dark, luscious, concentrated plums of that name – were invented 500 years ago, and where the very finest in the world are still being produced today. The unfortunate ignorance of the British and the ridicule sometimes associated with prunes hardly seem worth a mention here in this land that takes such pride in its passion for good food and good wine.
And certainly when discerning foodies of the world mention prunes, they have to be Agen prunes – or, more correctly, pruneaux d'Agen. However, Agen, the bustling port and market town upriver is not where they actually come from. Originally they were packed and exported by canal from there, hence the name, but it is right here in the Lot valley in the heart of Gascony that Agen prunes were, and still are, produced by some 3,500 small family producers.
I am here to visit three of those producers, the first being Gérard and his wife Colette. It's early morning and we've come to the door of a fairy-tale farmhouse with exposed oak beams and a pantiled roof, smothered with a blaze of creeping geraniums. From the terrace of the house, gentle lawns sweep down the river bank and the low, misty sunlight – creating a scene that happens only at this time of year – is making shafts through the trees, which are seen again, deeply reflected in the water. This is to be one of the most visually beautiful mornings of my life.
Madame Colette emerges from the house, bright, sharp and somehow very alert; though in her sixties she is as radiant as her surroundings. 'I am in love with this land. Every day, for 365 days of the year, there's always something new to see: the first plum blossom, the haymaking. The sky here in the southwest changes all the time, but (and here there's a long intake of breath) this is the très belle season. You can smell the prunes in the air.'
She waves at us to follow her and we move to the other side of the house. More visual feasts: vines, figs, rows of vegetables, herbs, hens with chicks in tow, cats nuzzling our ankles. Then all at once we see our first plum orchard. Same river, same trees, same early sunlight, but now what looks like a purple lavender carpet stretches out in front of us as far as the eye can see. The plums hanging on the trees change, too, from purple to translucent pink as the sunlight catches them. Gérard is with us now, explaining that when the plums are ripe and sweet enough to become prunes, you can just give the branches a shake and the fruit will fall into nets spread out on the ground. Those that don't fall are not yet ready, so the branches are shaken again the next day.
This is a special variety of plum called Ente, which has a very sweet flesh (I know because I'm eating them as he speaks). In fact, provided there's lots of sunshine, the sugar content can be as high as 21-30 per cent. The seedling trees begin to give a good harvest at 10 years old and go on yielding for up to 25 or 30 years. There are, of course, good years and bad years, depending on the frost, which can destroy early blossoms. For the best results, plenty of rain is needed in June and, after that, lots of southwestern sunshine. Then – the only sign so far that this is actually happening in the 21th century – a sort of tractor appears, with large pincers attached to it. This grasps the plum tree round its trunk and, after a vigorous five-second vibrating, an amazing purple shower rains down to the ground, ready for gathering.
It's now all of 10.30am and the cork is being drawn from a chilled bottle of wine as we sit on the terrace of the house gazing down at the gentle flow of the river while we talk of prunes. Gérard specialises in arboriculture – the study and cultivation of trees and orchards. After graduating from the Ecole Nationale d'Horticulture de Versailles, he came here because this is the geographical centre between Casseneuil and Villeneuve and the very heart of prune production. He bought the shell of a very old farmhouse without any facilities, rebuilt it and planted 10 hectares of plum trees, which have thrived in the chalky soil, the climate and the amount of sun.
Turning a plum into a prune is a special skill. It is not – as some suppose – a question of dehydration. If that were the case, all you would get is a dehydrated plum, not a prune, which is something quite different. There is as much skill involved in making a prune as in making jam, since it is a question of cooking the fruit to the right degree. In fact, a prune is just like a mini pot of jam, because inside it contains all the concentrated plum – still a totally pure and natural fruit, nothing added, nothing removed. Gérard positively sparkles with enthusiasm as he goes on to explain that a prune is the best energy-giving fruit of all: you can eat prunes for energy anywhere, any time (witness the fact that they were supplied to sailors on long voyages as much for their energy value and protection against scurvy as for their exceptionally long shelf life).
It's not like having a big meal and then waiting to digest it,' he adds. 'When I was nine years old my father used to take me mountain climbing – as high as 3,000 metres, and on the way he would give me a prune every half hour. Not only does it give you energy, it also alleviates your thirst if you suck the stone, so it's the perfect fruit for climbing or walking. Now if I go to an important agricultural meeting in Paris, I take a pack of prunes to help me keep up my intellectual energy and calm my nerves. While others light up a cigarette, I pop a prune in my mouth!'
As we leave, Madame Colette's Moroccan cook, looking as colourful as her surroundings, is gathering mint for the kitchen. What, we ask, is that tantalising smell? Poulet au citron. As we leave I feel a strange kind of wistful longing to be living this kind of balanced, earthy life.
Our next call is on the Vergnes family, third-generation prune producers. As we arrive at the old fortified farmhouse (which dates back to the 13th century), this time set back from the river, there are truckloads of pink-purple plums arriving from the orchards and looking like jewels as the afternoon sun catches them. This is where they will be transformed into prunes, and it will take 3-4 kilos of plums to make 1 kilo of prunes.
After the various grades of plum have been out on racks, they are loaded on to carts that travel along through ovens – which look like tunnels with doors at either end. Inside, forced air is driven round at a temperature of 80-85°C. The plums are inside for 24 hours, and it is essential that the temperature does not exceed 85°C, otherwise the fruit will begin to caramelise. The prunes are now stored in wooden boxes for two months to turn black, and after that they will have a shelf life of 18 months. The secret is to retain moisture – a perfect prune should be luscious, not dried out.
After watching the processing of the prunes, we are invited into the house to see, of all things, a cookery demonstration: Madame Vergnes is going to show us how to make a traditional Gascon tourtiène aux pruneaux, a speciality of this area. 'Great,' I had thought, 'we can use the recipe in Sainsbury's Magazine,' but as this amazing delicacy unfolded before me I had to do a quick rethink.
Madame begins ordinarily enough, with a bowl containing about a pound of flour, some eggs, oil and water, and proceeds to make a rather soft dough, which is then transferred on to a floured linen cloth. She begins the work of kneading the dough for 25 minutes, her hands spread-eagled, each finger to the very tip sensitive to the task of transforming the dough, the movements repetitive and rhythmic. At the end of this seeming marathon the dough is brushed with oil to prevent it from cracking and wrapped in a new linen cloth to rest for three to four hours.
Another piece of dough, already rested, is produced, and a clean linen tablecloth spread out over an enormous oblong table, a good four metres long and three metres wide. No flour this time, the dough is placed straight on the cloth, in the centre of the table, and Madame begins to gently roll it out to a circle. She then abandons the rolling pin and expertly starts to pull the paste gently to stretch it out. She works so deftly, hands so responsive to the dough, that if I wasn't seeing this for myself I would never believe it possible that this very small piece of dough would eventually cover the whole surface of this vast table.
But that is precisely what happens. The gentle pulling and stretching render the pastry almost transparently thin, in the end reaching all corners of the table. She invites me to try pulling, but it breaks instantly. She repairs my blunder, then the pastry is left to dry for 20 minutes with the window open. (One tip – in case you happen to have such a table and want to make this pastry – if the weather is damp you can dry it with a hair dryer switched to cold.)
Next, using a very sharp knife, she cuts out circles and arranges them in layers in a round, shallow baking tin. This gets pre-baked for 10 minutes, then a filling of prunes soaked in Armagnac and Golden Delicious apples chopped into small pieces is added, and the rest of the pastry is made into delicate cones and roses to form the top crust. After that, the whole lot is baked to a rich, nutty brown. Now a clean cloth is spread, wine is poured and we are each given a beautiful antique plate depicting the fables of La Fontaine, on which is placed a slice of tourtiène, looking huge but collapsing and melting in your mouth and tasting out of this world. Finally we sample the Vergnes' other prune speciality, which they sell in a small shop at the side of the house – fat, juicy prunes stuffed with squidgy prune purée, and chocolate-coated prunes. Wonderful.
Our last call is to a traditional farm of the region: it could be a stage setting, the last bastion of rural France. Surely the EC is unheard of here? But, no, the farm is real – old bicycles that have seen better days are propped up against the wall, there's a laden pomegranate tree growing round the farmhouse door, and everywhere animals are being nurtured for the table. The Esposito family produces all its own food (apart from sugar and coffee), and Madame still cooks on a wood fire. They not only produce their own prunes in a wood-burning oven in an outhouse but – and this is the best bit – they make their own eau de vie de pruneaux, a bottle of which is opened to welcome us. As we sit around the farmhouse table in the humblest of surroundings, sipping the pungent liquid amid lots of laughter as the Gascony sun sets, my affection for this wonderful country and its passion for good things to eat, drink and share has been deepened yet further.
Delia's recipes using prunes