All around where we live in SW France plum orchards abound and are mainly grown for the production of prunes for which the area is famous.
The ripe plums are these days harvested mechanically and transported to local co-operatives from where they are sent for drying.
They are oven-dried at about 175 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 26 hours, until the moisture is reduced. It takes about three pounds of plums to make one of prunes.
Before the prunes are sold, they are partly re-hydrated and plumped in steam, to bring the moisture content to a maximum of 35 percent.
In France prunes are held in the same high regard as foie gras and Armagnac. They are sought by connoisseurs around the world and they even have their own museum., (La Musée Pruneau Gourmand, located in Granges sur Lot near Agen).
The prune d’Ente has a long history. Pilgrims and crusaders brought plums from Damascus back to France in the 13th century and planted them around Montauban, near Toulouse in southwest France. The monks collected the fruit that fell on the ground and became dried out. Months later they were still edible.
After a severe frost in 1709, cultivation was moved to the chalky soil around Villeneuve-sur-Lot, which has a more moderate climate. The prunes were shipped to ocean going vessels at Bordeaux, where for a while they were known as pruneaux de Bordeaux. Because Bordeaux imposed heavy taxes, the producers then began shipping them directly from Agen.
The most famous prune in the world, the pruneau d’Agen, has been a celebrated product of southwest France since at least the 1500s. Agen is a commune in Aquitaine of south-western France. It lies on the river Garonne 84miles southeast of Bordeaux and is the birthplace of the prune d’Agen.
With the introduction of railway networks, tons of Agen prunes were exported around the world. Two world wars and a lack of manpower for harvesting led to a severe drop in production in the 20th century, but last year the region produced 70,000 tons of prunes, second only to California.