In Praise of the Prune
(Frangipane-prune tart.CreditGentl and Hyers for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Rebecca Bartoshesky.)
I like a good prune. I mean, when it’s soft and sweaty like a candy bar on a hot day. When it’s a sinister Disney-villain shade of brownish purple, and it tastes of nothing but honey and caramel, what’s not to like? It’s the word that no one likes, the word that indicates, to so many Americans, constipated octogenarians praying on spoonfuls of paste.
I don’t blame the California Prune Board for its rebranding efforts. In the early 2000s, it officially changed its name to the California Dried Plum Board, hoping to avoid the association entirely. “We thought maybe the stigma was too much of a challenge for us to overcome,” Donn Zea, the board’s director, told me. And “dried plum” was an accurate description: “It’s a plum. It grows on a tree. We dry them.”
Most of America’s prune-producing plum trees grow in California, in the Sacramento Valley, not too far from where they were first planted in 1856. That’s when Pierre Pellier came back to California from a trip to France with cuttings of la petite pruneau d’Agen, the plum tree requested by his brother Louis Pellier, who’d failed to make much money during the Gold Rush. The plants had been stuck in potatoes to keep them moist, ready to grow, and they thrived in what is now Silicon Valley.
Plums are harvested in August, when the fruit is soft enough, and laid out on wooden trays, where they’re dehydrated for about 18 hours in tunnel dryers. In that time, the fruit’s sugar and flavor are slowly, deeply concentrated, until it’s an inky, wrinkled violet, left with only about 20 percent of its moisture. The fruit may be rehydrated industrially with steam, or at home in hot water or tea. It may be revived and plumped, juiced or processed, but there’s no going back to what it was: It’s a prune now, and it’s delicious.
“Why don’t Americans like prunes?” I asked around. But almost every person I asked told me that this was the wrong question to be asking, or that they were the wrong person to be answering it, because they really did like prunes. And the more I investigated, the more prune lovers I found.
Jessica Koslow, the chef and owner of Sqirl in Los Angeles, told me she’d tasted hummus on a recent trip to Krakow, Poland, topped with smoked prunes that were almost meaty. And now she’d been smoking prunes herself, using the chopped fruit as a cookie mix-in. Liz Prueitt, the pastry chef and owner of San Francisco’s Tartine Manufactory, was serving them warm, in a puddle of good whiskey, under softly whipped cream. On the bus, I spent a long time staring at the photo she posted of the dish on Instagram: The prunes were black and glossy. They made me want to rush back home and bake something.
In most parts of the world, including the small town east of Paris where I lived as a kid, prunes were never a punch line. Good prunes were considered a serious craft, a worthy, occasional expense, a perfectly conventional thing to love. They’d be simmered with game, whipped into a boozy mousse or slipped into baggies to eat as a snack. They’d disintegrate into a lamb tagine, or be sliced almost all the way open and filled with cold foie-gras terrine on New Year’s Eve. But my favorite way to have prunes was in a tart full of frangipane, the sweet, buttery almond cream that goes very nearly chewy when it cools.
Plum trees generally bloom in March, and every tiny flower on their branches is a promise of fruit — a nice fat prune in the making. But last year, plum growers in California noticed weird weather around bloom season. And what with the thunderstorms, hail and high winds, a lot of bees decided they were better off staying inside where it was warm, putting off the work of pollinating the trees. The crop turned out to be just half the size of what it was the year before, and one of the smallest recorded in a hundred years.
When I inquired about this, Zea assured me that it wasn’t as devastating as it sounded, that there were plenty of prunes from the previous season and that we wouldn’t be experiencing any kind of prune crisis. Still, I didn’t want to waste any more time: I rushed home to bake something.
Recipe: Frangipane-Prune Tart