Aerial view of the orchards of the Lot and Laparade

Prune orchards below Laparade (aerial photo by author)

In a small area of Southwest France focused on the Lot-et-Garonne are large areas of plum tree orchards that produce the delicious prunes of Agen, les pruneaux d’Agen. August to September each year sees stack of crates by the roadside and tractors pulling large trailers away loaded with plums. Another, specially adapted, trailer is towed from tree to tree in the many orchards, where the trees are shaken and falling plums are caught in the trailer. From there the fruit is taken to be washed and dried ready for sale.

The centre is the Lot valley around Villeneuve-sur-Lot. These prunes are intensely flavoured, benefitting from the strong sun in the late summers. The variety used, the pruneaux d’Ente, originates in Syria and were brought back by Benedictine monks of Clairac Abbey. They do well in the Lot-et-Garonne climate and last well when dried. They are very nutritious, full of fibres, vitamins and minerals, and were vital for sailors on long voyages.

Many older British people associate prunes with less than pleasing stewed prunes in custard in school dinners, and they were considered a good laxative!  However, the Agen prunes are used in a wide variety of dishes and liqueurs. There’s a good prune champagne cocktail that makes a nice aperitif, porc aux pruneaux is a great classic French main course dish and a tarte aux pruneaux is a rich and delicious end to a good lunch (probably not all in the same meal!).

The prunes of Agen have a protected status, a PGI, and are a crucial part of the local economy. If you drive down the D666 and D911 from Aiguillon to Villeneuve-sur-Lot you will see a series of warehouses  for the storage and onward movement of the prune harvests. Driving around the region in spring you can see a forest of white blossom from the plum trees and they are also beautiful in their autumn gold. The orchards, often mixed with orchards of hazel or noisette nuts, give a strong sense of a cultivated garden wrought large.