Sunday, July 21, 2013

Farm Bulletin: Life's a Bowl of…Prunes? Pt. 2

In Part Two of this Farm Bulletin, contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm discusses the much-maligned prune and shares a unique way of curing the immature green fruit. In Part One he discusses the attributes of sour cherries.


The stone fruits have three separate layers surrounding the seed and are what botanists call a drupe. The layers are the skin (exocarp), the pulpy flesh (mesocarp) and the hard layer surrounding the seed (endocarp) that the laity call the stone or pit. These three layers are derived from the mother plant's tissues, whereas the seed inside is the result of the sexual union of the sperm produced by the pollen and the mother plant's egg. The various stone fruit have characteristically shaped endocarps. Cherries have round ones, peaches have a large-pitted version, almonds have a softer corky endocarp, and the plums have a very hard asymmetric pit. The seeds have a characteristic bitter almond flavor, and some are toxic when eaten in large quantities. The Boutards have long eaten the seeds of stone fruit without apparent ill effects. In many parts of Europe, it is customary to include some pits to flavor preserves and eau de vies made from stone fruit, just as Sarah [Minnick of Lovely's 50/50] does with her ice cream.

The plums are the most diverse of the stone fruits in terms of types and flavor. This week, we start with a prune bearing the regal name of Imperial Epineuse. The prunes are a class of related plums with a very high solid content of sugars and fiber, which allows them to dry well. They are prunes no matter whether they are fresh or dried. The commerce in dried prunes originated in Hungary in 16th century and spread westwards into France and Germany. The original seedling of Imperial Epineuse was found in an old monastery near Clairac, France. It was introduced to Oregon in the waning days of the 19th century as a dessert prune under the name of Clairac Mammoth, but never gained a following here. Not sure why, as it is easy to grow and more reliable than any of our other stone fruit. A steady cropper, as the Brits would say. The texture is very fine, and pomologists have suggested that it may have a bit of damson in its background. The skin provides a pleasing and contrasting acidic note.

If you have an over-productive prune in your backyard, you can pick the very young fruit in the spring, before the pit has hardened, and cure them just as you would olives. The whole fruit is edible, no need to pit them, and you use them in dishes just as you would olives. We crack the fruits with a mallet and put them in a jar with water, changing it daily until they turn olive green. Last year, we cured them in lye. The cured plums look no different than cured olives; the lye cured plums are dark just like lye cured olives. Publication 8267 from UC Davis gives good directions. We got the idea for curing plums from a visiting Chicago Chef Paul Kahan, who served up a dish with green peaches cured in the same manner. Greg Higgins and his staff cured gage plums and seasoned them with a Tunisian accent. That is the great part of having visitors to the farm, they always leave a new idea or two as they depart.

Illustration of plums at left by Alois Lunzer from the Brown Brothers Continental Nurseries Catalog, 1909.

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