France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

September 4, 2009

The Big Prune

When I tried to get my Parisian bouquiniste (Seine bookseller) pote Luc to come down here this summer, one of the excuses he gave me was, “Ah, you know, down there, in the country, they eat mostly meat.” (Sounds better in French: “Ah, tu sais, la-bas, c’est que le viande qu’on mange.”) Luc is a vegetarian. (Though definitely not a vegan, judging by his predilection for the camembert Le Petit; he even saves the red cartons.) (Camembert secret: Open the box — yes, in the supermarket — and press down on the cheese. If it bounces back, don’t buy it. Unless of course you’re planning on using it for the eight-day Simenon diet.) Okay, c’est vrais que the great southwest of France, surtout the Dordogne, is known as the capital of foie gras. And, yes, my neighbor Mr. Marty did just knock on my door this morning with a big bloody chunk of raw sanglier (wild boar) meat. And I’m certainly not complaining. Nor did I say no when Bernard and Stephan came by one night and asked, “Are you in the mood to eat sanglier?,” and we cooked up the meat Stephan had brought from the sanglier he caught the day before on the converted half water heater Bernard made into a grill, after gathering wood by the river. (The succulent flavor was no doubt helped by the sarmant or dead wine branches from Mr. Marty’s vines.) So what if the morsel that lodged in the ruins that are my teeth is still there two weeks and a couple of dozen ibuprofen tablets later? I will still cook up Mr. Marty’s sanglier with relish. I will cook it up for ten hours and pulverize it, but I will still cook and eat it with relish.

If Luc is still reading after that little eloge to viande, I want to tell him that I have never eaten as much fruit in my life as I have eaten the last two months — peaches (from Mr. Marty’s grove), apples (mostly from the tree in the backyard, near the river). And above all plums. It started with Mr. Marty inviting me to bring a basket over and pick some of the tiny red plums from the tree behind the chicken coop — “Otherwise they’ll be wasted and that would be dommage!” — then progressed down the route to Le Bugue, the village where I do my marketing, and along which I scored green, red, and a whole lotta yellow or mirabelle plums. (The rule here is that if the branch is hanging over the road you have the right to pick the fruit. And for fruit on the ground, it’s safe if it’s not punctured.) There’s even a bush of mirabelles right before you turn into the train station. In Le Buisson, where I go to get the medicine for Sonia, my 20-something part-wolf Alaskan Siamese, I took a different route to get to the river after picking up the meds and trampled upon a field of prune plums — probably the best I’ve found. And in the cute medieval vllage of Belves a couple of weeks ago, finding myself stranded at the train station for two hours (the wine festival I was there for was over by the time I arrived), I was reduced to picking very hot, almost prunified plums below a little red-leafed tree next to the abandoned gare.

But The Big Prune Show — that’s what it’s called — took place last weekend in Agen, after California the largest producer of prunes in the world.

If there’s one great food divide between Americans and the French, it may be our different perspectives on the noble prune.

In the States — even in California, the world’s largest producer of prunes — prunes and above all prune juice are something for very old people. And they are diaretics, which is exactly the reason I avoided them for 40 years. I actually like the taste, so it was more a protective measure. (Even in the popular culture, prunes get a bad rap, e.g. the villain character of Pruneface in the Dick Tracy comic.)

France has totally changed my perspective on prunes.

First, they don’t give me diarrhea here.

That out of the way, I’ve been able to indulge.

Besides being succulent tout seule as a fruit (generally speaking they’re not so dried up here), they’re fantastic in yogurt. I’ve also had them wrapped with bacon and have made my own aperitif recipe involving spreading creme de canard (or foie gras if you’re rich enough) and a single (pitted) prune on a grainy bread, preferably toasted. Soaked and stewed with lamb, tajine-style, they’re sublime and make the lamb sublime. Then there are prune tarts. This region is also known for ‘prune,’ which doesn’t actually mean ‘prune’ but eau de vie a la prune. (The eau de vie Mr. Marty supplies me with is actually made from his grapes. Not that he makes it; he no longer has the right. The problem when he, and other paysans, made it on their own is the government couldn’t tax it. Now, if he wants to have eau de vie from his own grapes he has to pay a man who comes around once per year to collect the harvest and turn it into ‘fin.’ It costs him as much as if he were to buy a bottle in a liquor store. The best way to consume eau de vie, btw, is a la ‘canard.’ which does not mean getting a duck drunk with the liquor and then killing it for the barbecue, but rather dipping a sugar cube into the eau de vie and then sucking on it. The best eau de vie I ever tasted was fig, which is illegal, perhaps because the alcohol content is too high.)

So last weekend I decided to take the Perigeux-Agen regional train to the end of the line in Agen, a 90-minute to two-hour ride depending on how many stops you make. Later I learned, watching a television documentary on French concentration camps, that if I were taking that same train in about 1944 I probably would have had to get off in Penn, where I’d have been interned before being shipped off to Auschwitz.

Fortunately, this being 2009, my French hosts permitted me to stay on the train until the terminus (of the train), where San Francisco pals Renee and Alvin were waiting for me. I know Alvin peripherally, because he used to run a jazz cafe across the street from me in San Francisco’s Mission District, Cafe Babar. They were installed having a glass of blanc and tea at the buffet I was a bit impatient. “Where’s the prune giveaway?” I pressed them. We started with a walk through an alley where local producers were selling regional wine and liquor specialties. Here I had a great reunion with an aperitif called the floc of Gascon. The red variety kind of tastes like bitter strawberries, and goes well with chocolate. I also discovered that I was not quite as finished with rosé as I thought I was after a summer of going through three three-litre cartons (of a very red and dry Lot variety) and one 5-litre box (from St. Emillion). The one I tried in Agen was fruity and actually had a nose, rare for a rosé. (With a nose like that, it probably also would have found itself type-cast and sent to Penn by France, er, Vichy, during the Occupaton. ‘Free Zone’ mon oeil.)

After the tastings, Renee and Alvin lead me to a tour of the old city, starting with the Street of Jews. (Talk about making it easy for the French, er, Vichy police. “Eh les flics! Nous-sommes la!”) (If I keep digressing to this subject, it’s because this week, finally, after years of films in which everyone in France seemed to be resisting the Nazis and/or hiding the Jews, the public television is finally focusing on the collabos. On Tuesday, France 2 broadcast a fictional film in which Marthe Keller discovers that the granddaughter she thought was shipped to the camps and her death was actually kidnapped by one of the French militians who arrested her family, and is now a pupil in her class. This was followed by a documentary on Drancy and the other French camps that focused on the role of the French police and gendarmes in rounding up the Jews, and reminded us that it was the French, er, Vichy government that volunteered to do so before the Germans, er, Nazis could ask them to — the only country where this happened. Then the last two nights, a documentary on Jacques Chirac replayed — twice — the landmark speech he made, shortly after being elected in 1995, in which 50 years after the fact, a French chief of state finally acknowledged the culpability of the state of France in the deportations and deaths of the Jews.)

But where were we? Oh yes: In the old city of Agen. Which is pretty breathtaking, with the buildings a sort of melange of the sandstone found around these parts and Spanish-Toulousian red brick. (Agen is an hour away from Toulouse by train and, in the other direction, the same from Bordeaux. It has a real Mediterranean, luminous feel, not surprising, I guess, as it also hosts the canal deux mers, which runs from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, more or less.) Later, when Alvin and Renee decided to take a pause for lunch, I left them at the resto and took my picnic kit and lunch to the white-stony banks of the broad and vast Garonne. This is fast becoming one of my favorite French rivers, after the Seine. (In the moving van that brought me here two years ago, trying to make conversation, I asked the French girl who was doing the driving what her favorite dream was. I guess I must have said ‘rive’ instead of ‘riviere’ and she must have heard it as ‘reve’ because she answered, “A fragment of Roland Barthes.” Even when I do manage to connect with a French woman on a serious topic it’s by accident.) It may be just my imagination, because I’m aware that the Garonne feeds into the Atlantic, but I could swear it was almost blue and that my lunch was accompanied by a briny aroma.

On the way back to find Renee and Alvin, I crossed a long, green esplanade, with the requisite skate park and petanque players. I stopped to watch the petanque players, just so I could write that. Then finally, at about 3 p.m., we reached the prune give- away, where there was already a long line. Renee and Alvin left me there, with their sac, which gave me two. First I scored a big sac of wet, just prunified fruit — what looked like a prunifying machine was just behind the tables where the young men and women were handing out the sacs of prunes — and then, cleverly stuffing it into my bag, I moved to the next table and was handed a bag of the dried variety. Before leaving I found a Shopi in the covered market, where I scored a jar of brandade (great in crepes — thank you, Joe Liebling) and a bottle of Tariquet at an affordable price (4.20); then a second at an even more affordable price 3.70) at a food and wine boutique. (Tariquet is a white made from the same grape as armagnac. It’s kind of like Colombard, which one can find in the States, but better — fruity and with a bite. Goes great with fondue, tartiflette, and raclette, and can even be served as an aperitif.)

While my train was still in the station, a friendly-looking older man with a hearing aide sat down across from me. Noticing his umbrella, I said amiably, “Fortunately it didn’t rain today!” He explained that he’d just been getting the umbrella repaired for his grandchildren. I asked if he’d checked out the prune festival; he’d been busy visiting the church. “They were giving out free prunes!” I said, and invited him to try the wet ones. “Delicious!” he remarked, his whole face lighting up. As soon as I found out he was from Toulouse, I asked him if he found it polluted. Toulouse had been one of my candidate villes until I visited it last summer and discovered that on some streets you can actually see the pollution in front of you.. But for social reasons, I keep coming back to it. “No no,” he said, he didn’t find it polluted. As, doing the math, I figured he must have been close to 80, I thought this was a good sign. He added that public transport is FREE for those over 60. This is another thing I like about Toulouse, on paper anyway; it isn’t just that it offers a lot of cultural events, but that they’re free or close to. (For 80 Euros, you can see everything at the Cinematheque — a good one, with a strong Russian collection — for one year, which beats Paris (120) and Lyon (183, and you still have to pay for the special seances). He also said, brightening up even more, that in the park across from his home there’s lots of pissenlit (dandelion leaves) to pick, so we swapped recipes, mine for salad and his for a casserole with potatoes (the key is to cut the pissenlit up into tiny morsels). I guess I was friendly enough that the man, whose name was Marcel, asked me if I wanted a gold or a silver Virgin medal. I asked for the silver but he ended up giving me both. All I need to do to get benedicted is show it to a priest. (According to the documentary on the deportation camps, it was the albeit belated protests by the priests — notably the archbishop of Toulouse — that finally slowed the French, er, Vichy government down in its zeal to collect the Jews and deliver them to the Germans, er, Nazis.) On the trip, Marcel, a retired telecommunications specialist for the train company, explained to me how fragile the telecommunications lines for the train company used to be, made of glass.

Just before we passed the stone house where I live, from the train window I caught Bernard and Stephan harvesting Bernard’s potatoes. During the Occupation, according to Bernard, whose father lived those years here, the maquis used to sabotage the train tracks just above the stone house. They hid in the pre-historic caves I look up at when I take my apero on the terrace. The Germans once shot at Bernard’s father — for nothing. There were also collabos who told the Germans where to find the resistants and, not far from here, a whole village that was killed in reprisal by the Germans.

After dropping the prunes and Tariquet at the house, I walked down up to the potato fields. Bernard handed me a heart-shaped pair of Siamese potato twins and said, “You know what these are? Balls!” I unearthed a potato tinier than a prune. Holding up the one Bernard had given me I said, “These are American balls.” Then showing him the tiny one I added, “And these are French balls.”

For the prunes: The more aged ones are so hard — almost like hard candy — I decided to stew a few in a glass filled with Mr. Marty’s eau de vie. Perhaps I will have them for desert today if there’s any room left in my teeth after the sanglier gets through with them.

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