The Ente plum (the Prune of Agen’s ancestor) traveled from China during the early Silk Road trade, enjoying a stay in the Mediterranean with its hosts, the Greeks and Romans. During the Crusades, it was transported by Benedictine monks to the area around Agen, France. There, it was grafted to a local plum, and The Prune of Agen was born. The glory of this prune is that it is very sweet, but not very juicy, so it can be easily dried—thus preserving its nutritional value.
Originally, the prunes were grown in Agen and shipped to Bordeaux from Agen’s Garonne River port. The barrels of prunes were marked Origine Agen (“Loaded at Agen”) and the name stuck: Pruneaux d’Agen. But the cold weather and the soil proved daunting to our lovely prune and production moved about 20 miles northwest to the more temperate area around Sainte-Liverade-Sur-Lot, where the prune of Agen has thrived.
After WWII, production and export of prunes had fallen to such low levels that France was importing prunes from California! Slowly, as France and Europe recovered, French prune production increased. Coufidou was founded in 1964 with 20 producers and sales of 300 tons. (It is named after the word for the ancient wooden prune-drying tray). In 1977, they started wholesale and export programs. In 1984, l’Union des Pruniculteurs de France (UPF) was created to absorb five major cooperatives into one dynamic unit. Slowly, over the years, Coufidou increased its membership and product offerings. It now represents 80 producers selling 3,000 tons. In 1992, the prune of Agen was granted a European provenance designation: L’Indication géographique protégée (IGP) and thus the prune of Agen was protected from imposters.
Agen prune production involves, at least in part, 14,000 farmers farming plums in over 31,000 acres in the area of Liverade-sur-Lot. For these farmers, Coufidou grants many benefits. By providing finance, production equipment, sales and marketing support and informational resources, it gives the individual, small farmers the benefit of sophisticated oversight. In fact, the co-op frees up the farmer to do what they do best: grow excellent prunes! The plums are pitted and slowly dried to 21–22% humidity. Before shipment, they are rehydrated slowly to 34%—it takes 3–3.5 pounds of fresh plums to produce a single pound of Agen prunes.
High in nutritional benefits (rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals) and easy to carry, prunes have long been valued by athletes and travelers—ship stores always included barrels of prunes, and sacks of prunes were a mainstay in the saddlebags of crusaders.