Indoor: Plum for it

A taste of ... prunes from Agen in south-western France. Nikki Spencer samples the finest of dried fruit

In Britain we may regard prunes as mildly amusing, conjuring up images of tweed-clad schoolmistresses keeping themselves regular. In France, however, they take their prunes seriously. So seriously, that in the Lot valley in the heart of Gascony, where they claim they grow the finest prunes in the world, they have a museum dedicated solely to the dried fruit.

Visitors to the Prune Museum in the small village of Granges sur Lot can trace the history of prune-making in the region from the Crusades to the present day, and sample prunes dipped in everything you can think of - including brandy, honey and chocolate.

Towards the end of August the region takes on a purple haze, as the plums ripen and the air is filled with the smell of "cooking" prunes.

Picking is carried out by means of a slightly Heath Robinson method. A sort of tractor with large pincers grabs the trees around their trunks and vibrates them so that a shower of fruit rains down on the ground into large, inverted umbrellas or nets.

One story goes that prior to mechanisation in California - where prune trees were taken in 1865, and where they now supply 74 per cent of the prune market - one grower hit on the idea of bringing 500 monkeys from Panama to pick the plums, only to find that they ate the fruit as fast as they picked it.

Once the fruit has been harvested, turning a plum into a prune is a special skill. It's not just a question of dehydration, but of cooking the fruit for about 24 hours at such a temperature that it remains succulent and moist, then storing it in wooden boxes for two months so that the prunes gain their deep black colour.

The prunes that many of us were forced to eat as children were usually tinned, or pretty tough and chewy, but modern technology makes it possible for the modern prune to be eaten or used in recipes straight from the packet or the jar, rather than needing to be soaked or drained. And even in the UK we are catching on to the idea. Sales of prunes, particularly from France, have trebled in the last year, according to the supermarket chain J Sainsbury.

Prune place

The Prune Museum in Granges sur Lot is about 30 minutes' drive from the bustling port of Agen. It is open all year, except for Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Entrance costs 10F for adults, and is free from children under 10. By prior arrangement the museum will arrange tours of the surrounding farms and orchards. (0033 553 8400 69)

Uses for prunes

King Henry VIII served prunes as a starter at all his state banquets.

In Japan prune paste is sold door to door, and is consumed by the teaspoonful as a skin and hair enhancer.

During the 19th century young ladies were advised to practise saying phrases and words beginning with "P" as an aid to gaining an attractively shaped mouth. A popular phrase, mentioned in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, was "prunes and prisms".

The California Prune Board, which has declared next week National Prune Week, claims that, as well as being a healthy snack, prunes combined with plenty of fluids can reduce hangover blues. With the endorsement of the Californian model Caprice and the former Baywatch actress Alexandra Paul, the board will be encouraging us to sample dishes such as apple and prune strudel, and savoury prune and onion pizza.