“YOU’RE so lucky -- you live in Paris!” I hear that a lot from people. I guess they’re assuming life here is a nonstop parade of chic Parisians and exquisite chocolates. It’s as if I said to folks living in Los Angeles, “You’re so lucky -- you live in Los Angeles,” jealous of being surrounded by all those movie stars and taco stands. For the record: I’m not all that keen on hobnobbing with stars, but I’d kill to find a taco truck in Paris.
Cultural quirks notwithstanding, making up for the lack of Hollywood stars are the rows of delicious chocolates and fine pastries lined up at the patisseries on every block -- OK, maybe I do stake out some of the pastry shops, paparazzi-like.
And like the locals, I’m star-struck by prunes: custardy wedges of Far Breton, studded with flambeed prunes, which Parisians enjoy as le snack in the afternoon, or scoops of Agenais ice cream, made with Armagnac-macerated prunes, at famed ice cream shop Berthillon on the Ile St.-Louis.
Almost 95% of the prunes cultivated in France are pruneaux d’Agen, from plums grown near the town of Agen, which borders Gascony, in the southwest. They’re terrific, but worth searching out in Paris are the pruneaux mi-cuit. (I get mine at my twice-weekly neighborhood market, although specialty stores carry them as well.)
Biting into a pruneau mi-cuit is a transformative experience. They’re prunes that are only half-dried, so they’ve retained much of their moisture and are pillowy-plump with a thin, glossy-black skin. They’re better than candy.
The chocolate and spicy flavors of these fat fruits are so luscious that I’d pit a good prune against any of those fancy little squares of ganache in the swank chocolate boutiques around here.
California provides 60% of the world’s prunes. And California’s prunes are made with plums that were grafted by a Frenchman in the 1850s from a plum cultivated in France: les prunes d’Ente. Thanks to this successful Franco-American alliance, good prunes are available on both sides of the Atlantic.
A typical cafe dessert here might be a bowl of poached prunes. I perk mine up at home with rounds of tangy glazed kumquats. Their citrus-like bite is the perfect foil for the richness of the prunes, gently poached in Earl Grey tea.
The French rarely serve prunes that have been pitted because it’s believed that the noyau (the kernel in the pit) helps flavor the prunes as they cook. I’m not sure I’m convinced of that, but it does help them keep their shape.
Prunes go especially well with Armagnac, the dark-amber spirit made in the same region. I’ve had the good fortune of shopping at outdoor markets in rural Gascony where exceptionally good bottles of Armagnac are sold on makeshift folding tables, some of which obviously do double-duty the rest of the week as ironing boards.
Macerating the prunes in Armagnac is the base for a prune-Armagnac ice cream. I’m pretty generous with the Armagnac, perhaps because it stands up better to the dousing of dark chocolate sauce I give it at home. Prunes don’t shrivel when paired with strong flavors such as Armagnac and chocolate, and in fact, are perfect partners.
And perhaps I’ve been living around the French for too long, because I can’t resist making foreign foods distinctly my own, like the French are prone to (which explains melted cheese served alongside les sushis).
Although I’ve seen prunes in some odd places, from canned tuna to the plastic replica on the end of my key chain (yes, really!), I’m inclined to put les pruneaux between layers of fluffy mascarpone and shaved dark chocolate -- a sensible spin on the classic tiramisu.