Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dining and traveling in and around the town of Agen in South-west France. Agen is home to many wonderful wines, fruits, vegetables and holds the gold standard in prunes.




Behind the French Menu
by
Bryan G. Newman
  


The Municipal Theatre Agen. 
Photograph courtesy of Jean-Louis Zimmermann.
  
Agen and its history
 
Agen is a beautiful small town and the capital of the department of Lot-et-Garonne in Aquitaine. It is situated on the river Garonne and the Garonne Lateral Canal. The town of Agen was already a city during the Roman occupation 2,000 years ago. Then later it would be governed by the English King Henry II and his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  English kings ruled most of Aquitaine from 1152 – 1453. Agen has a 12th century cathedral and is a walkable town with narrow streets and medieval houses in the center. Just outside, Agen are amazing chateaux, castles, fortresses, and some of France’s most beautiful villages


Agen Cathedral.
Photograph courtesy of kristobalite
   
Agen and Armagnac country.
 
Agen is in the heart of Armagnac country and so you should know better than to ask for a Cognac as a digestif in an Agen restaurant; unfortunately I did that, without thinking!  The locals can get quite upset. After a wonderful meal, I made a terrible faux pas and asked the sommelier “what Cognacs are available?”. The sommelier; cringed, and  then realizing what I had said I did the same. However, the sommelier remained polite but offered a very fixed smile. He said: “I am sorry sir, but we keep no Cognacs here. However, we do serve the best Armagnacs in the France and I think I can help you choose one.”. He went on to recommend an aged but not overly expensive Armagnac which was wonderful; I chose that wonderful Armagnac again the following night.
  

Aging barrels of Armagnac.
The date on the bottle of Armagnac is its bottling date. However old the Armagnac was when it was bottled it does not age or improve in the bottle. A excellent ten-year-old Armagnac bottled in 1965 remains an excellent ten-year-old Armagnac fifty years later. That is if the cork had not dried out.
Photograph courtesy of Tourism Midi-Pyrénées
  
The Pruneaux d’Agen – The Agen Prune.
The gold standard in prunes around the word
  
The Agen prune is what placed this town on the medieval map and has kept it there ever since. The prune was developed by monks from the nearby Benedictine Abbé de Clairac. The monks crossed local plums with Syrian plums that had been brought back from the crusades. These plums could be dried without losing flavor, and could be kept for a year or more. Now the citizens could have fruit in winter. The Agen prunes were on their way to becoming a worldwide industry.
 


The plumb that makes the Agen Prune
Photograph courtesy of LandLearn NSW

N.B.: Do not get confused with the French for plums and prunes as I occasionally still do. The French for a plum is prune and the French for a prune is pruneau (pronounced prune-oh)

The chefs in and around Agen
 
The chefs in and around Agen are highly skilled; however, tradition is tradition and menus in Agen restaurants will include at least one dish with Agen prune accents. Some diners dislike prunes as they associate then with a fruit chosen for those with dietary problems; however, prunes are just dried plums. Despite that, for those who do not like prunes nearly all the other dishes will not even have a sniff of prunes/dried plums. The chefs have at least 70 other local fruits and vegetables, all excellent, to choose from. In season, enjoy their especially wonderful Label Rouge, red label, strawberries. Along with the fruits and vegetables come local cheeses, wines and more. The land around Agen is a veritable garden of Eden. For those who like plumb brandy try one of Agen’s: Eau de Vie de Prune d'Ente with 46% alcohol.

For lunch or dinner in Agen you may be offered dishes with prune accents:

Champignons Farcis aux Pruneaux d’Agen Mushrooms stuffed with Agen prunes.
 
Crumble aux Pruneaux d’Agen, Glace à l’Armagnac - A prune crumble served with Armagnac brandy flavored ice cream. Crumble is nearly as popular in France as it is in Britain. The dish came to France along with British soldiers in two world wars. The first recipes were apple and rhubarb crumble and then the French took off on their own. Armagnac, one of France’s two most famous grape brandies (the other is Cognac) is just as important to the Cuisine of Lot-et-Garonne as the Agen prune. 
   


Tajine au Pruneau.  
Photograph courtesy of  Med PhotoBlog
    
Magret de Canard, Confit de Pruneaux d’Agen Cuit au Vin de Noix Pommes de Terre Sautées Piment d’Espelette. Duck breast served with a jam made of prunes cooked in walnut wine;  accompanied by sauté potatoes spiced with the Basque Country’s Espelette AOP peppers. All of Aquitaine’s departments are renowned for their ducks and duck dishes. Around Agen and in its neighboring department of Dordogne/Perigord are ducks galore, they will be on every menu. Vegetable confits are made by slowly cooking the vegetables with wine, vinegar and sometimes added sugar and oil. The resulting jam, frequently called a chutney, but here called a prune confit may be accompanying main dishes with its slightly sweet taste..  The walnut wine, which is not really a wine will counteract the sweetness. Walnut wine is made in this region by macerating green walnuts in wine and a liquor.
 
Pruneaux d'Agen ou Vin de Bergerac et Glace Vanilla.  – Agen prunes cooked in a Bergerac wine and served with a vanilla ice-cream. Bergerac wines come from the neighboring department of the Dordogne and include well-known reds, roses, and white wines. No doubt, the Bergerac wine accompanying this dish will be one of their sweet white wines.

Do not ignore the IGP wines of Agenais, these were previously the Vin de Pays de l'Agenais. The Agen IGP wines are whites, roses, and reds; they make an enjoyable change. If you prefer AOP wines try Côtes de Duras with red, white and rosé wines, the Buzet AOP red and white wines and the Côtes du Marmandais  red and white wines. All are very different wines that come from close to Agen. Their vineyards face those of Bordeaux across the river Garonne. Bordeaux is just a one and a quarter-hours’ drive from Agen.

Ris De Veau Croustillant, Boudin Noir, Choux, Pommes, Jus au Porto et Pruneaux d’Agen - Crisply cooked veal sweetbreads served with black pudding, cabbage, and apples. The dish is served with a sauce made with port wine and Agen prunes. The boudin noir in this dish is called black pudding in every English and Irish kitchen. Cabbage in France will be in every French restaurant kitchen; and the sauce is the natural cooking juices flavored with Port wine and Agen prunes.
 

Boudin Noir with choucroute. 
Photograph courtesy of rdpeyton

    
Dried plumbs/prunes were historically very important for the city dweller and the sailor. The city dweller saw little fruit in the winter and sailors could only use food that could be stored for long sea journeys. The dried Agen plum changed all that.

For more about other fruits and wines in Lot-et-Garonne use the French language website with Google or Bing Translate. It is a lot more interesting than their English website. Click here:

Around Agen

The area around Agen is called Agenais; it covers two valleys, three rivers, and the Garonne Lateral Canal. The Garonne Lateral Canal connects to the Canal de Midi canal that connects the Mediterranean at the fishing port of Sete. In the other direction the canal leads to the northwest and Bordeaux. On the canal, you may rent a canal boat with bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchen. 


 The Agen Canal.
Photograph courtesy of Jean-Louise Zimmerman

However, to see and taste Agen and its surroundings take the map From the local Tourist Information Office called: Les Circuits en Agenaise, D'une Vallée à l'Autre – This is the  Agen Tourist Information Office Route for all the best stops around Agen in one day
 


  Les Circuits en Agenaise - The route around Agen
Courtesy of the Agen Tourist Information Office.
 
The map provided has explanations for each stop. To those you may add your own side trips of which there are many choices. This map is an easy way to get to know the area  around Agen; it covers, altogether, 100 kilometers (60 miles) and is a fantastic way to pass a day. Traveling with this map will introduce you to the countryside, its fruit farms, duck farms, cheese producers, prune growers, vineyards, wineries, a Chateau or castle or two and the Abbey of Clairac.  As may be expected the map for Les Circuits also directs you past many restaurants.

The Agen tourist information office has an English language website:
http://www.ot-Agen.org/_eng/default.htm. 

However, I recommend that you use the French website which has much more information and can easily be read using Google or Bing Translate:
http://www.ot-Agen.org/default-old.asp

A French adventurer named Louis Pellier
and the California fruit and wine Industry.
  
 Louis Pellier from Agen came to the USA from France in 1849 when he heard the news of the California gold rush.  After some success in the gold fields, Louis built a nursery and orchard for apples, peaches and plums in the Santa Clara valley.  In 1854 on a return trip to France, Louis brought cuttings of the Agen plum trees and cuttings from some of France’s most famous grape vines. At one stroke, Louis Pellier established the California French Prune industry and the California wine industry.



 Plumb brandy. 
Photograph courtesy Distillerie Louis Rande Agen


The site of Louis Pellier’s original nursery in San Jose is now reduced to a rather uninteresting under one-acre park with a plaque in his memory. That one-acre park in memory of the founder if California’s fruit and wine industry has no adequate budget. Few in the USA, in California or in France will even have heard of Louis Pellier.  America owes Louis Pellier, a little respect; maybe the industries involved could organize one annual joint USA and French  Louis Pellier wine festival…..anyway back to Agen prunes.
 

Louis Pellier’s park.
Photograph courtesy of Fintano.

The Grand Prune Shown in Agen.

Every year, on the last Friday, Saturday and Sunday of August the town of Agen puts on Le Grande Pruneau Show de Agen, the grand prune show of Agen. They have parades, decorations, concerts; special programs for kids, and of course prune/dried plum enhanced menus in all local restaurants.

Agen and Rugby
 
 Agen is a rubgy crazy town and  they play 15 a side rugby union rules.  On the right weekend, you will be able to watch a game, check ahead.
 

Rugby in Agen.
Photograph courtesy of Biffo1944.jpg
  
Rugby lovers can follow their favorite sport in Agen and the three towns close to Agen that are famous for their wines:  Duras, Buzet (Buzet-sur-Baïse,) Marmande, also famous for its AOP tomatoes. All these are four towns absolutely rugby crazy.

Their French language rugby websites are:

Agen: http://www.Agen-rugby.com/cms/

Duras: http://club.quomodo.com/aoccduras15/accueil.html

Buzet-sur-Baïse: https://fr-fr.facebook.com/AocRugbyBuzet

Marmande: http://www.usmarmande-rugby.fr/accueil.html

You will need Google or Bing translate, but you can see the upcoming games and if you choose you can buy tickets online at most of the clubs.


Where is Agen

135 km (84 miles) southeast of Bordeaux.
137km (85 miles) from Perigueux,
91 km  (57 miles) from Bergerac and their AOP wines
85 km (53 miles) from Bergerac and Monbazillac.And their AOP wines
67 km  (42 miles) from Marmande and their AOP tomatoes, AOP wines, and their rugby club.
90 km (56 miles) from Duras and their AOP wines and rugby club.
35 km (22miles) Buzet-sur-Baïse and their AOP wines and rugby club.

  
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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2015.

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman
at
behindthefrenchmenu@gmail.com

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