They are the dried version of plums called “Ente” plums grown in the Lot-et-Garonne region.
The Ente plum is a hybrid of a damask plum. The Ente tree is reproduced by grafting. It can grow 13 to 16 feet (4 to 5 metres) and will live about 60 years, and start bearing fruit after 7 years. You get about 220 pounds (100kg) of plums from each tree each year.
The plums have very thin, purplish-red skin.
The harvest happens between the third week of August and the third week of September. It is done using machines. Collars are placed around the trunks of the trees, which the machines then shake so that the falling plums are caught by the collars. The plums are then washed and sorted. They used to be first dried in the sun, then in ovens, but now this has all been replaced by drying tunnels, in which the plums spend about 20 hours at 167 F (75 C) on racks. One tunnel can dry 11 tons of prunes a day. Larger producers have their own drying tunnels; smaller producers bring the plums to cooperatively owned drying tunnels.
The goal is to reduce the fruit’s moisture level down to 21 to 23%. It takes 6.6 to 7.7 pounds (3 to 3 1/2 kg) of plums to make 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of the prunes.
After drying, the prunes are classed into three sizes: small, medium and large (called le fretin, la rame et la grosse.)
Regulations now determine what can be called an Agen Prune. It must be of a certain minimum size, it must have come from an Ente tree, and it must have been dried properly.
They feature prominently in Gascony cooking.
Their main competitor is California prunes.
Some people say the Ente plum was in France since the Romans; others say it was brought there from Syria by the returning crusaders.
The monks at Clairac Abbey were the first to grow it.
Commercial production of the plums into prunes started in the 1400s in the Quercy and Rouergue regions. Export of the prunes had begun by the 1600s.
In 1709, a very severe winter wiped out the trees in the Quercy and Rouergue regions. The orchards were restarted in the Agen area where it was milder, and consequently Agen took over as the production centre.
Agen Prunes were at first called Bordeaux Prunes, because that is the port they were shipped through.
Television commercials to promote the prunes started in 1965.
Agen Prunes received European PDO status in 2002.
“Ente” comes from the an old French word “enter” (pronounced “ahn – tay”) meaning “to graft.”