When I’m in France, a stroll through the market is the most perfect start to a warm spring or summer day. With an empty basket (and usually an empty stomach), I slowly make my way through the various stalls, dreaming up recipe ideas as I go along. It isn’t long before that basket is bulging with fresh fruit, crisp vegetables, stinky cheeses, a few dried sausages, bread, and of course, a bottle of local wine.
Honestly, I don’t really bake many ‘special’ cakes. The kind with multiple layers temptingly blanketed by sweet, creamy frosting and loaded with enough sugar and calories to make you forget life’s troubles in an instant. No, I hardly bake that kind of cake. It may have something to do with the fact that those kind of cakes require a little more effort, and that baking them ‘just because’ seems a little, well… frivolous. Hans, my husband, gets a double-layer chocolate cake on his birthday, and I’m happy to bake one as a present for a friend, but that’s pretty much it.
I guess you could say that I’m the kind of person who likes to save the good stuff for ‘special occasions’. The Limoges plates and my mother-in-law’s fine linen tablecloth for Christmas dinner, the antique German soup tureen and French silverware for entertaining, the classy jewellery and fancy shoes for business meetings. It is my attempt to keep these treasured items pristine and beautiful. I am also trying to convince myself that I am getting the most out of them this way. If I don’t have something often, I’ll enjoy it more when I do, which is true, to an extent.
Years ago, I came up with a rosemary infused chocolate mousse, sprinkled with just the tiniest bit of fleur de sel. That mousse went on to become a favorite at dinner parties. I made it the night before and by the following day, it was perfect. My guests absolutely loved it. I even shared a version of the recipe in the Valentine’s Day issue of Vriendin, the magazine I write for, last year.
Well, for the past few days, I was dreaming of that mousse. Not as a mousse though, but as a cake.
Sweet, glossy and bursting with flavor, Agen prunes have been part of south-west France’s gastronomic history since the 12th century. During that time, crusaders returned back from Syria with Damson plum trees which the Bendectine monks of Clairac, not far from Agen, crossed with their own, local plum variety. The result was a new kind of plum which they called the Ente plum. Since then, the plum has been used to produce the famous pruneaux d’Agen, named after the city from which the prunes were shipped all over Europe. Today, more than half of the production of the fruit is still taking place in the Lot-et-Garonne.
The dark plums are harvested between mid-August and mid-September. By that time, they are so ripe and sun-drenched that the trees either naturally drop them or need nothing more than a gentle shake to let them fall to into the harvesting nets. After careful sorting, the best fruits are dried and preserved for year-round use.