Saturday, April 18, 2015

Agen in South-west France. Home to the Agen Prune, the Gold Standard in Prunes.

from
Behind the French Menu
by
Bryan G. Newman
behindthefrenchmenu@gmail.com
Updated October 2020

The Municipal Theatre, Agen.
Photograph courtesy of Jean-Louis Zimmermann.
www.flickr.com/photos/jeanlouis_zimmermann/4764950765/
  
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. 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 impressive chateaux, castles, fortresses, and some of France's most beautiful villages.


The Garonne River
Photograph courtesy of camilo g. r.
www.flickr.com/photos/47188333@N00/14657242777/

   

The Pruneaux d’Agen – The Agen Prune.
The gold standard in prunes around the world

The Agen prune is what placed this town on the medieval map and has kept it there ever since. Monks developed the prune 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. Dried plums, prunes, were historically very important for the city dweller and the sailor. The city dweller saw little fruit in the winter, and sailors on a voyage of over one week could only use food that could be stored. The dried Agen plum changed their diets. If you are into the history of plums and prunes, visit the Prune Museum of Agen.

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


The Agen plumb and prune
Photograph courtesy of irqualim
  
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, without thinking, I did that! The locals can get quite upset. After a wonderful meal, I asked the sommelier, (the wine steward), "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 France and I think I can help you choose one." He went on to recommend an aged but not overly expensive Armagnac, which was terrific; I chose that excellent Armagnac again the following night.


Aging barrels of Armagnac.
The date on a 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. An excellent ten-year-old Armagnac bottled in 1965 remains an excellent ten-year-old Armagnac fifty years later. That is if the cork has not dried out.
Photograph courtesy of VisitFrenchWine

   

The chefs in and around Agen

The chefs in and around Agen are highly skilled, 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, nearly all the other dishes will not even have a sniff of prunes/dried plums for those who do not like prunes. 

 


Agen Cathedral.
Photograph courtesy of kristobalite
www.flickr.com/photos/art_roman_p/8044695946/

   

The chefs have at least 70 other local fruits and vegetables, all excellent, to choose from. In season, make a note to enjoy their incredibly fabulous Label Rouge, red label, strawberries. Along from here come three AOP cheeses, more usually associated with other departments but also made here; they include Rocamadour AOPBleu de Causes AOP, and  Ossau-Iraty AOP. The land around Agen is a veritable garden of Eden. Those who like plumb brandy should try one of Agen's: Eau de Vie de Prune d'Ente with 46% alcohol.


Vieille Eau de Vie de Prunes d'Ente
Agen Plumb brandy.
Photograph courtesy Distillerie la Salamandre

Lunch or dinner in Agen 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 icecream. Crumble is as popular in France as it is in Britain. The dish came to France along with British soldiers in two world wars. The original 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. 


Civet de Canard Aux Pruneaux D'Agen.
Wine braised ducks' legs with Agen prunes.
Photograph courtesy of Saveur

Magret de CanardConfit 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 sautéed potatoes spiced with the Basque Country's Espelette AOP peppers. Many of Nouvelle Aquitaine's departments are renowned for their ducks and duck dishes. Around Agen and in its neighboring department of Dordogne/Perigord there are ducks galore, so duck will be on nearly every menu. Vegetable confits are made by slowly cooking the vegetables with wine, vinegar, and sometimes added sugar and oil. The resulting jam is frequently called a chutney, but here a prune confit might accompany the main dishes with its slightly sweet taste. If oil is used, it will probably be walnut oil, and 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 vanilla icecream. Bergerac wines come from the neighboring department of the Dordogne/ Perigord and include reds, roses, and white wines. No doubt, the Bergerac wine accompanying this dish will be one of their excellent sweet white wines.

Bergerac is in Purple Périgord, the wine-growing center of Périgord/Dordogne, hence the name. Here the most important town is Bergerac itself, and the surrounding area is called the Pays de Bergerac. Apart from being home to the Bergerac wines, Bergerac is another center of Cuisine Périgourdine.

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 the Côtes de Duras AOP with red, white, and rosé wines, the Buzet AOP red and white wines, and the Côtes du Marmandais AOP red and white wines. All are very different wines from close to Agen. Their vineyards face those of Bordeaux across the river Garonne; the city of Bordeaux is just 141 km (88 miles) from Agen. Some of the grapes that make the Cahors red wine, from the town of Cahors in the neighboring department of Lot, just 85 km (53 miles) away, come from close to Agen, so Cahors will also be on many wines lists.

Ris De Veau Croustillant, Boudin NoirChoux, Pommes, Jus au Porto et Pruneaux d'Agen - Crisply cooked veal sweetbreads served with black puddingcabbage, and apples. The dish is served with a sauce made with port wine and Agen prunes. The boudin noir in this dish is a pig’s blood sausage, called black pudding in English and Irish kitchensIn France, cabbage is an important vegetable will be in every French restaurant kitchen, and the sauce here is made with the natural cooking juices flavored with Port wine and Agen prunes.


Boudin Noir with Choucroute.
Photograph courtesy of Robert
www.flickr.com/photos/rdpeyton/4116911187/ 

For more about other fruits and wines in Lot-et-Garonne, use the French language website with Google or Bing Translate. 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, while in the other direction, the canal leads to the northwest and Bordeaux. You may rent a motorboat with bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchen and sail to the Mediterranean via the canal.


The Agen Canal.
Photograph courtesy of Jean-Louise Zimmerman
www.flickr.com/photos/jeanlouis_zimmermann/4765010335/

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 has explanations for each stop and 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, and a 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 a French-language website that can easily be read using Google or Bing Translate:

  http://www.destination-agen.com/
 
The 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 goldfields, 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 grapevines. At one stroke, Louis Pellier established the California French Prune industry and the California wine industry.


Louis Pellier's park will be rebuilt here.
Map courtesy of Pellier Park

The site of Louis Pellier's original nursery in San Jose was reduced to a rather small one-acre park, now an uninteresting piece of grass. That one-acre park in memory of the founder of California's fruit and wine industry is supposed to be rebuilt, but it 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 France) Louis Pellier wine and plum festival…..anyway, back to Agen prunes.

The Grand Prune Shown in Agen.

Every year, on the last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of August, (except 2020) Agen's town puts on Le Grande Pruneau Show de Agen, the great 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. Click on their website for this year's dates of the Grand Prune Show, Pruneau Show d'Agen)

Agen and Rugby

 Agen is a rugby crazy town, playing 15 a side rugby union rules. On the right weekend, you will be able to watch a game; check ahead.


The Agen team playing in Toulouse.
Photograph courtesy of Pierre-Selim  
www.flickr.com/photos/pierre-selim/7958788650/

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

The Agen French language rugby website is:
   
http://www.Agen-rugby.com/cms/ 

How far to Agen?

   

719 km (447 miles) from Paris. (Four hours by TGV fast trains).

135 km (84 miles) southeast of Bordeaux.

137km (85 miles) from Perigueux,

91 km (57 miles) from Bergerac and their AOP wines

--------------------------------
 
Bryan G. Newman 
 
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2015, 2020
 
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog, write to Bryan Newman.
at
behindthefrenchmenu@gmail.com
 
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