The history
of a fruit

Carried from China along the Silk Road, plum trees flourished all over the Mediterranean basin under the aegis of the Greeks and Romans. The fruits were dried in the sun or in bakers’ ovens, depending on the region, transforming them into prunes. Prunes are highly nutritious dried fruits with a very long shelf life, making them ideal sustenance during times of poor harvests or for long sea or land journeys. Prunes have been appreciated for thousands of years due to their nutritional, dietary and medical properties, and were prescribed by Greek, Roman and Arab doctors. A number of writers incorporated them into their works, too: Archilochus Pollux, Virgil, Pliny the Elder, Xenophon, Hippocrates, Gallienus, Dioscorides, Palladius Rutilius Taurus, Avicenna, Ibn al-Baitar, Cohen Al Attar, Mesué Damascae...
The Romans planted the first varieties of plum in Gaul, in the Narbonnaise province which stretched all the way to modern-day Quercy, near Agen. These varieties included the Saint Antonin, also known as the Maurine. This little blue plum is certainly the oldest variety and the most widely cultivated, producing a very dark and modestly sized prune.

It was only in the 12th century that, upon their return from the 3rd Crusade, the Benedictine monks of the Abbaye de Clairac in the Lot Valley (between Agen and Villeneuve) were inspired to graft the new Damas plums from Syria onto the local varieties. This was the birth of a new variety of plum, known as the Prune d’Ente (from the Old French “enter”, meaning to graft).

This new variety of fine-skinned, mauve-blue plums with a white bloom (the fine, slightly powdery and waxy layer) was well adapted to the soil and climate of the south-west, and to the local drying conditions. The new type of prune, made from these plums, was large and delicately flavoured and scented. The future Agen prune was born! And thanks to the port on the Garonne river, Agen soon became the central hub for prune exports. These prunes were loaded onto the “gabarres”, little towed or wind-powered vessels which transported their merchandise to Bordeaux where they could be taken aboard larger, sea-faring ships. And as the fruit was stamped with the name of its port of origin, they became known as “Pruneaux d’Agen”.

The winter of 1709 was harsh, with freezing temperatures destroying a great many plum trees. This pushed plum growers further west, into the Villeneuvois and Agenais regions where the climate was milder. Additionally, the clay and limestone soil of the Guyenne and Gascogne made this part of the south-west, along the valleys and banks of the Garonne and Lot rivers, the perfect place to produce Agen prunes.

It was the superfood of its day; easily stored and packed with energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals, the Agen plum was immensely popular from the 17th century to the end of the 19th. Agen prunes were a staple on board Navy sailing ships, and later on the merchant steamboats. These stocks of prunes were taken around the world, to every continent, where they were appreciated by sailors for their flavour and nutrients. They even cooked with them, mixing the prunes with a batter made from flour and eggs and creating the famous Breton far aux pruneaux.