I really like Prunes.
Sticky, chewy, complex, concentrated, thick with the taste of intense fruit sugar, treacle and dark caramel, jet black, mysterious prunes….
My affection for prunes..……despite the obstacles which include 1. the English speaking worlds prune negativity and habit of sniggering and turning up of the nose at the mere mention of prunes (no wonder the French think we are unsophisticates) 2.their unfortunate association with the dreary food and bleak dining rooms of English public institutions and the breakfast buffet at fusty seaside B&B’s. 3.The enduring childhood idea that prunes are as funny if not funnier than a whoopee cushion……… started young.
My Grandma may have championed their curative qualities, she believed you not only ‘ate‘ but also ‘took‘ prunes, but she also adored them. So we did too because we adored her. She would stew prunes gently in a little apple juice and sugar until they were plump and soft, then serve them just warm in the stickysweet syrup with thick, creamy custard. ‘Not too many mind‘ she might have said knowingly in her soft northern lilt with a cheeky smile ‘you can have too much of a good thing‘ and we would promptly roll around laughing because we knew what that meant. She would also make a sticky, prune dense fruit cake best eaten in thick slices with a chunk of crumbly Lancashire cheese at tea time.
My youthful love of prunes however was cemented by a certain round, deep, metallic red tin with gold writing my Dad would buy from Fortnum and Mason for my Mum every christmas. The tin, which would be prised opened after christmas dinner contained 16 Pruneaux d’agen fourrès. 16 jet black, glossy, dried Pruneaux d’agen from southwest france plumped back into voluptuous roundness by a filling of prune cream. My childish lips were stunned, were they one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten ? The dark, chewy, deep seductive flavour of the prune bursting open to reveal a soft, luxurious prune cream, I might even have declared that Fortnum and Mason Pruneaux d’agen fourrès were my favorite thing ever. – precocious ? moi? – maybe a little, but mostly at the mercy of something ambrosial.
Holidays in France, in particular a rather unhappy French exchange with a girl calld Carolyn when I was about 13 during which I eased my homesickness by consuming much fine French farmhouse cooking, served to reinforce my prune devotion. Nobody it seemed was sniggering in France they were simply relishing prunes in both sweet and savory dishes. I remember pork garnished with rich juicy prunes, a prune tart, a prune clafoutis I think and best of all prunes soaked…I mean drenched in Armagnac of which I ate many, went rather pink and subsequently found climbing the stairs to be a rather confusing task.
Growing up my mum never doomed prunes with medicinal or worse a ‘healthy’ eat your greens albatross. It was quite the opposite in our house, prunes were a treat, a luxury, a delight. They were in the pantry all year long for snacks or nice cakes, the odd tart and appeared with pleasing regularity on the table on Sunday mornings, part of a fruit compotê to be eaten with thick yogurt. It was Christmas however when prunes came into their own, wrapped in bacon for the delicious treat that is devils on horseback, as stuffing for the turkey or soaked in brandy and then fried in butter if we were having roast duck. Then, the tin, the red metallic one with the gold writing…….
As I write this I have popped a couple of prunes in my mouth just to remind myself how much I like them, ‘not too many mind‘ I can hear my grandma saying ‘you can have too much of a good thing’…….
I imagine if you don’t like prunes you haven’t bothered to read this far. If on the other hand you’re still reading and you share my affection for these delicious wrinkly things you’ll probably like this recipe, Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Muskily spiced prunes…..prunes that is, agen prunes if possible, poached in a syrup of fragrant earl grey tea, Marsala and spices.
Muskily spiced prunes – what a good name for a pudding.
Or a breakfast with greek yogurt….
You may have noticed I have a penchant for compotes, for poached and stewed fruit and they are often my pudding of choice. Well executed such fruit needs no adornment. However a big dollop of real custard, a blob of creme fraiche or yogurt, maybe a sable biscuit is rather nice. These prunes are nudged right up next to my other favorites; poached quince, pears simmered in red wine or apricots in Sauterne.
You make a spicy tea syrup of earl grey tea, muscovado sugar, some marsala, a stick of cinnamon, a clove, a strip of orange peel and a star anise in which poach your prunes for about 20 minutes – tender bellied Agen are perfect. Then you let the prunes sit and steep in the syrup for 12 or 24 or if you can wait 36 hours when they are soft and drenched in sweet spiciness.
They are, as Nigella suggests, delicious with baked custard. I also like them with creme fraiche or thick greek yogurt, the tartness of both balancing the sweetness of the syrup.
The last thing….
…..we prune lovers know that prunes will never win unanimous support and people may well snigger. So I suggest you make this for someone you know will appreciate it or, just eat them all yourself. 250g is about 32 prunes thats gives you 6 to taste while they are steeping, 3 breakfasts and a random snack you can eat whist reflecting that you’re glad so many people are rude about prunes and don’t like them as that means more for you.
Muskily spiced prunes
from Nigella Lawson’s ‘How to eat’ -
To whom it may concern -why oh why did you change the book cover of ‘How to eat‘ and put that silly picture of her, we know she is beautiful and sexy, WE KNOW, but the other simple, understated cover was so much more in keeping with this wonderful erudite book.
yields 4 portions
- 250g pitted prunes
- 500ml boiling water and an earl grey tea bag
- 150ml Marsala
- a cinnamon stick broken in two
- a star anise
- a clove
- the peel of half an orange pared from the fruit with a vegetable peeler
- 100g light muscavado sugar
Make up 500ml of tea with the boiling water and the earl grey tea bag – discard the bag when the tea is strongish.
Put the tea, the Marsala, muscovado sugar, cinnamon stick, clove, star anise and orange peel in a heavy saucepan.
Bring the pan to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Add the prunes and allow them to poach for 20 minutes.
Leave the prunes for 12, 24 or best of all 36 hours – they get better and better so it is worth it.
After 36 hours remove the prunes and spices to another bowl with a slotted spoon and then pour the syrup into a smaller pan and reduce it over a lively flame until you have a thick unctuous puddle of almost treacle thick syrup. Once the reduced liquid is cool spoon it over the prunes.
Serve at room temperature with warm baked custard or cool yogurt.