Monday, May 18, 2009


Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own begins with lunch. Novelists, she observes, might write about meals, but “seldom spare a word for what was eaten.” So she furnishes her meditation on education and living in the margin with an extended description of dining at a men’s college. She revels in the radiant, animating provisions set before the men, the serenity of the fish dish, the poise of the sauces, the rise and sparkling fall of desert. Good food fuels a casual, naturalised intellectual bonhomie amongst the fellows:

“And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself . . . how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one's kind, as, lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window-seat.”

But Woolf, of course, must rouse herself from the upholstery of male fellowship and trudge her way back to the women’s college. And the dinner that awaits her there casts a pall. Set on obtuse china, the fare is dull and muddy – insipid soup, yellowed vegetables, dry beef and biscuits. The final insult is the pudding:

“Prunes and custard followed. And if anyone complains that prunes, even when mitigated by custard, are an uncharitable vegetable (fruit they are not), stringy as a miser's heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in misers' veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years and yet not given to the poor, he should reflect that there are people whose charity embraces even the prune . . . One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.”

Most outcast fruit, the prune! Woolf assaults it with a scorn borrowed from the boniest schoolmistress. The fricatives and plosives of her derision – the same mouth shapes as spitting out pits – are saved for this fruit, as an emblem of the dried and withered place of women in education. Girls are fed on dreary food and drearier thought, both provided by women – governesses and headmistresses – who themselves are overlooked, overcooked, overripe – spinsters, maiden aunts. They are Prunes. Educated women are cut off – cut themselves off! - from the succulent, the affable, the luminous dining table. Virginia Woolf is right: privilege smells, feels and tastes different to privation. She is right, too, that our very being is formed from within our gut: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” But is she right that “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes?”

It is certainly no easy task to rescue the prune, for its degradation has been a long time in the making. Stewed prunes have suffered from a forced association with institutions of discipline. Their affiliation is with the thick-lipped – but somehow always chipped – china bowls of the school, the boarding house and the nursing home. These houses of shrivel stored prunes in dusty tins the size of Gladstone bags. When finally released, the prunes were the colour of cockroaches and smelled thinly of death and dustballs. They leaked their embalming fluids into the thin, livid yellow custard in which they were always served. And worst of all, we who were served these prunes knew, with precision, that they were sent to discipline us. From the inside, out.

For it has to be admitted: the stewed prune was conscripted by the regiment of women who knew “what's best for you” and had seized on the bowel as their territory. These enforcers– the nurse, the nanny, the sports mistress, the hair-netted dinner lady – took charge of your insides with a noxious mix of no-nonsense affect and shaming euphemism. Accompanied by the whiff of disinfectant, brusque insinuations of “regularity” and “movements” turned the poor prune into a purgative.

The prune, then, is prim and it is puckered. In Little Dorrit, de facto governess Mrs General recommends that her charge says “papa” rather than “father,” augmenting her advice with a little elocution exercise: “Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, are all very good for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it serviceable in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to yourself in company or on entering a room, ‘Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism, prunes and prism.’” This is Dickens engaging in the ready sport of governess-baiting. Mrs General’s advice on how to properly pronounce the name of the father, inadvertently shapes the girls’ lips into pursed and pretty sphincters – her lessons in prunish prudery turn her girls into kissable (if nuttily muttering) bits of skirt. And so it was that the banal prune was yoked to the flashing prism, all under the sign of propriety. In the twinkling of a bedpost “prunes and prisms” passed into literary idiom, an easy way to catch women between the rock of sedimented virginity and the hard place of harlotry. D.H. Lawrence – scholarship boy and one-time junior clerk at a surgical appliances factory – mocks a character for her “‘prunes-and-prisms’ manner” and when Jo in Little Women yearns to be a boy and run away with Teddy and “have a capital time,” she breaks off and moans “’Prunes and prisms’ are my doom.” Since she is a girl, she must be “proper” and “stop at home.” Oscar Wilde’s governess Miss Prism may be missing her prunes (and her 3-volume novel), but her easily mocked high-tones remain.

Dickens – that rag and bone man – didn’t invent the prunish woman. The old maid was a figure of fun long before he steamed into print. And if we unflinchingly follow the history of the prune, it turns out that it was once associated with the oldest of “maids.” Behind the prune-wielding disciplined ranks of the governess, the nurse and the headmistress, lounges the most venerable professional woman of them all: the whore. We still sometimes call a brothel a “stew” and it is because of the innocuous stewed prune. A 1612 collection of satirical poems called The Knave of Hearts features a whoring knave who takes “Burnt wine, stew’d prunes, a punk to solace him.” And in a similar collection published a year earlier, The Knave of Spades, a wanton entices a young man into her house of vice:

“—He to his liquor falls
While she unto her maids for cakes,
Stew’d prunes, and pippins, calls.

Some scholars claim that dried cakes and stewed prunes were considered prophylactic against the pox and used as prescriptions for syphilitics. But whatever the reason, most scholars who interest themselves in Ladies of the Night agree that a bowl of prunes was the trading sign of a brothel. In Wit’s Miserie, or the World’s Madnesse (1596), Thomas Lodge says of a bawd, "you shall know her dwelling by a dish of stewd pruins in the window, and two or three fleering wenches sit knitting or sewing in her shop.” And Shakespeare goes to town on prunes and brothels. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Master Slender pleads lack of appetite for food and women, claiming sexual mishap has put him out of action: “I bruised my shin th' other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence; three veneys for a dish of stewed prunes; and, by my troth, I cannot abide the smell of hot meat since.” And in Measure for Measure, a play which gleefully compromises attempts at astringent morality, Shakespeare gets right to it and relishes the visual pun between the creased, globular fruit and a pair of bollocks nestled in a certain kind of “dish” – Elbow’s wife is led into a brothel by her craving for prunes. Pompey explains to the law that she was “great with child, and longing,—saving your honour’s reverence,—for stewed prunes. Sir, we had but two in the house, which at that very distant time stood, as it were, in a fruit-dish, a dish of some three-pence; your honours have seen such dishes; they are not China dishes, but very good dishes.”

Our post-industrial association of the prune with dour desiccation is a mean-spirited corruption of earlier ages’ earthy and bawdy prune play. A prune can be more than a faded plum. Juicy and vital and a little sultry with fruit-sugars, it might never intend you to remember the plum. This prune is bold, not grudging or grasping. Preserved into opulence, it pleases itself. It doesn’t mourn or imitate its juvenile state, but, flashing black as the pupil of your eye, transforms it into something else again. It is as scented and reflective as tobacco, and it takes you from the schoolroom to the brothel and all regions between and beyond.

This prune, the prune of my dreams, met me recently in France. I had been happily invited along on a women’s college alumnae tour of the Dordogne Valley. These were women reconvening after time in the full glow of life, and together we spent an idyllic week of food, wine and conversation. The Dordogne lays an expansive, seasoned table for its guests. Its culinary specialties are mostly dark and unctuous: duck, goose, foie gras, truffles and walnut oil. It is food that takes time to prepare, and time to eat; it eases the clockworks of conversation back to a sauntering pace, and doctors, lawyers, senators and novelists found themselves suffused in the lamplight of conviviality. A linguist gnawed on yet another leg of duck confit as she explained to an enthralled audience the symbolism of the string skirts worn by such well-fed prehistoric beauties as the Venus of Willendorf; a casual mention of lace elicited an impromptu lesson on “death bobbins,” whittled by the makers of filigree to commemorate the execution of bloodthirsty murderers; a porcelain expert, class of 1950, fois gras trembling on the end of her fork, described how she once landed a distressed hot air balloon on a boat in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. By day, our bus wove across a region made of castles and cliff-dwellings, rich furrowed soil and corrugated precipices. We trekked into painted caves where tens of thousands of years ago bears bedded down together and, upon waking, flexed and sharpened their claws on the walls, carving a tally of another year. The folds and creases of the landscape accommodated this group brought together by friendship and education, by plenty, by loss, and by the diverse pleasures of society of one’s kind.

Across the course of seven breakfasts, seven lunches and seven dinners, no one ever set a prune before us. Virginia Woolf’s algorithm of food and education and sex had been inverted, and I had eaten her boys’ meal with girls. But I wasn’t happy about the still sacrificed prune, that third sex. So on Saturday morning I said a quick goodbye to the breakfasting sisterhood and set out with an empty bag and my dubious French at the ready. It was market day in Sarlat and I found the glorious Agen pruneaux, outside the hotel doors, in the bustle of narrow cobbled streets. A valley away from the Dordogne, Agen is the cradle of prune civilization. The jet-black fruits are made from the Ente plum, and their sweetness comes from being tree-matured and carefully dried to preserve their sugars. I had heard of these prunes – even tasted what I knew to be an over-dried specimen in England – and I was determined to load my suitcase with the genuine fleshy gems. I made my way between stalls groaning with sausages, fish, mustards, oils, vegetables, cheeses, strawberries . . . until finally I found, in the shadow of the old church, a stand full of the treasured prunes – ranked in size, labeled by humidity. They glistened under the quiet husbandry of a gentleman dressed in a plum coloured stripy sweater and plum coloured corduroy trousers, his scholarly face tilted over his produce, as if listening to them. I bought many bags from Monsieur Pruneaux, and then sought out a quiet stretch of medieval wall to sit on.

Solemnly, I dipped into my treasure. The prunes were so tender that the pits slid silkily from the flesh, and the flesh itself was almost cucumber green against the purple-turned-to-carbon- skins. They were tense and then yielding to the teeth, and they tasted of seasons turned, of nightfall. The flavour was as broad as a thumb, but bright too. Each small parcel had enfolded its sugars and its sunlight, and compressed them like coal. I brought the prunes back to the hotel and fed some to my new friends, and then watched as their faces registered the marvel: this is a prune?!

B and I ate most of the prunes straight from the bag across that week and on the long train ride back north, a thoughtful chew and an archaic smile their only condiment. But once back in London I wanted to make a prunes and custard dish that both redeemed and paid homage to the ridiculed genre of prunishness. I began with the idea of a clafoutis – a simple French dish of baked custard and fruit. The name of this dish might, some think, find its origin in the word meaning “to fill up, to stuff.” But other sources suggest a root meaning “to affix with nails.” Since clafoutis is most commonly made with cherries which film over with a skin of custard and bleed slightly as they cook, I’m convinced of the latter meaning – surely the dish acquired its name because it looks like stigmata? But mine would be made with prunes, and there is a Breton version of the clafoutis, slightly sturdier in consistency, made with prunes. It is called a “far Breton.” I decided to follow a “far” recipe, but borrow a little something from the clafoutis, too. In a clafoutis, it is traditional to leave the stones in the cherries, to impart a hint of almond flavour to the pudding. I thought I could mimic this, and get something of a brothelly “to stuff” meaning in my prunes – by removing their pits and replacing them with a nub of marzipan. In Far Breton and similar dishes, the prunes are sometimes soaked in tea or Armagnac to plump them up. My prunes had no need of such hydration, but it would be a shame to spurn spirits altogether, especially since I had taken care to procure a small bottle of Prune D’Ente eau de vie from the Sarlat market. So I added a generous tablespoon to my batter.

My final ingredient was a smuggled one. Before taking the train down to the Dordogne, B and I had eaten in a small Paris bistro. The crème brûlée we ate was scented, our menu said, with “Tonka.” The caramelized custard had a warm, round flavour, brown as leather. When we asked what “Tonka” is, the chef emerged from the kitchen (in a natty track suit) and presented us with a dark, hard, wrinkled bean. He left us the tactile little stone, which B put in her pocket and brought back to our London kitchen. It was an illicit trafficking. The tonka seed is toxic in large doses and is banned in England. Most compelling for my purposes of helping my prunes masquerade as cherries whose stones masquerade as almond, tonka is sometimes used in place of another forbidden flavour – bitter almond, favoured by suicides. We risked our livers, but tonka added the flavour of defection to my prunes and custard. You have to transgress, masquerade as what you might become, and damage yourself a little or maybe even a lot in order to steal the lighted lamp.


3 large eggs
2 cups (475ml) whole milk
½ cup (113g) sugar
½ grated tonka bean, or seeds from ½ a vanilla pod, or ¼ tsp vanilla essence
1/8 tsp salt
1 tablespoon prune eau de vie, or Armagnac
5 tblsp (71g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
¾ cup (94g) flour
1 ½ cup (300g) pitted prunes
enough marzipan (or brandied marzipan) to stuff prunes – about 150g
If necessary, 1 cup hot tea, or ¼ cup Armagnac plus ¼ cup water for soaking liquid
Icing/confectioner’s sugar for dusting

Put eggs, milk, sugar, tonka/vanilla, salt and melted butter in a blender or food processor and whiz to blend for about 1 min. Sift in the flour and pulse the batter several times. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, preferably 3, overnight even better. (The batter should last several nights in a fridge.)

If soaking your prunes, put in heatproof bowl and pour over the hot tea or the Armagnac and water mix that you’ve warmed together. Cover and let stand.

Centre a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 375F/190C. Butter an 8x2 inch round cake pan or deep quiche dish and dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess. Do not use a loose-bottomed pan. Put pan on baking sheet.

Drain prunes from their soaking liquid, discarding the remaining liquid (or better still, drinking it). If your prunes have pits, slice them open with a small sharp knife and remove pit. Tear off enough marzipan to roll into a nugget that will fit inside the prune. Tuck the marzipan inside the prune, closing the skin over it. Repeat until you have a plateful of stuffed prunes.

Remove batter from fridge, add the eau de vie or Armagnac, and whisk it lightly to reblend, then rap the pitcher against the counter to break the top bubbles. Pour batter slowly and gently into the pan, trying not to incorporate more air, and then drop in the prunes, distributing them evenly.

Bake for 50-60 mins or until top of cake is puffed quite high, has turned brown and a knife comes out clean. If the pudding browns too quickly, turn the oven down or even off and leave inside for the full cooking time. Transfer to cooling rack and cool to room temp.

You can now serve this straight from its dish, or attempt to unmould it. It will be fragile – only unmould if you have baked it in the right depth of pan, and if the bottom doesn’t seem to have stuck. Have a serving plate at hand. Run a blunt knife around the edges to loosen. Dust the top of the pudding with confectioner’s/icing sugar, then cover with a piece of parchment or wax paper. Place an upside down rack over the paper and invert the whole thing to turn the cake out onto the rack. Then quickly re-invert onto the serving plate. Redust with confectioner’s/icing sugar if necessary.

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