Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When is a prune not a prune?

This is both a language question and a horticulture question. The language question is one you are probably familiar with: the people who market the crop decided at some point that enough people have negative associations with the word prune that they would be able sell more of them as “dried plums.” This euphemism extends to the marketing of prune juice as dried plum juice. Meanwhile, lots of people, myself included, actually like prunes. So Trader Joe’s, for example, sells a product labeled “Pitted Prunes” on the front of the bag and “Pitted California dried plums” in the fine type of the ingredient list. Whatever.

The horticultural question is more interesting. To a grower, a prune is any variety of plum with a high enough sugar content that it can be successfully dried with the pit still in it. Granted that prunes are all pitted these days, the definition remains. The main (perhaps only) variety grown in the Northeast that meets this criterion is called, unsurprisingly, the Italian Prune Plum. It is a dusky purple, oval fruit, about two inches long and an inch and a quarter or an inch and a half in diameter.

This year, though, the rainy summer in Connecticut has resulted in low sugar content in all manner of crops. The tomatoes—the ones that survived the Late Blight blanketing the region—have been less flavorful than in other years. And the stone fruit has been mediocre at best. This includes the Italian Prune Plums from my favorite local fruit grower. So they’re Prune Plums, but, with their low sugar content, I’m not sure they’re prune plums.

I hope next summer is sunnier.

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