About 25 years ago, Terhune Orchards in Salt Point, N.Y., received an unexpected gift. A family friend admired the orchard because it reminded her of her hometown in Northern France. Then, one year, she arrived with a cutting from a plum tree from France. That cutting has since grown into one of the only Mirabelle plum trees in the New York area.
While the tree’s small yellow fruit may not be well known to New York natives, the plums have a long and celebrated history in the Lorraine region of France, where much of the harvest is used to make jams and the clear fruit brandy eau de vie. Every August, the city of Metz hosts a Mirabelle plum festival.
The tree at Terhune Orchards was discovered a few years ago by Kate Weiner, the proprietress of The Art of the Tart. Weiner uses the fruit in the rustic French puff pastry tarts she sells at the farmers' market in Millbrook, N.Y. She explains that she’s not positive how she first thought to seek out the fruit.
“I think I was in a fugue state,” said Weiner (pictured below, right, with Last Chance Foods host Amy Eddings). “I’m not sure how I discovered it. I think I just woke up one morning and had a bee in my bonnet about Mirabelles.”
Jan Czech, one of the owners of Terhune Orchards, explains that the plums have a small but loyal following.
“We really didn’t know anything about them when we planted it and how, basically, rare they are,” she said. “So our first crop, we just put them out for sale and people came in and said, ‘Oh, my god, you have Mirabelle plums!'”
Weiner was one of the few who had that reaction, and even now, has reservations about sharing knowledge about the tree.
“I have pangs that we’re even discussing this tree, because I have had pretty much exclusive rights to it for the last few years,” she said. “I buy the entire output of this one tree, which amount to a bushel in a good year and about half a bushel in a not so good year.”
Even the labor that is involved in halving the small yellow plums has not deterred Weiner from snapping up as many as she can get.
“I’m like the Tailor of Gloucester,” she said. “I sit sort of halving these things for hours at a time.”
Weiner notes that Mirabelle de Nancy, and Mirabelle de Metz are the culitvars that are most prized. She spoke with several plum experts, who told her that there are no yellow plums that are commercially cultivated. So any yellow plums found at the farmers market are from smaller scale operations. The Mirabelle, in particular, does have a very short shelf life and must be used soon after being purchased.
Unwilling to be subject to the health and availability of one tree, Weiner took to the Internet in search of her own Mirabelle tree.
“It was when I began searching for one that I realized that I had an enormous task ahead of me,” she said. “After obsessive searching on the Internet, I finally found a specialist grower.”
Weiner was put on a waiting list for a year, after which she was told she could only have one tree. She admits that the tree, which is in one of her front gardens, is not doing so well.
“I think kind thoughts about it but I don’t think it loves to be there,” Weiner said. “They’re a little high-strung. I mean, they’re cut out for Northeastern France.”
For those who are able to get some of these small, yellow plums, Weiner shares a recipe for clafoutis, a regional French specialty.
Adapted from a recipe first published in The Sunday Times (London)
- Scant 3/4 cup all-purpose flour (or 5.2 oz.)
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1 cup granulated sugar, plus a tbsp
- 2 large eggs
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 tbsp armagnac
- 3 1/2 tbsp butter, plus extra for greasing
- Confectioners sugar, for dusting
- 10 Mirabelle plums, or 4 large purple or European-style plums
- 1 tbsp toasted flaked almonds
1. Put the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor and whiz for a few seconds to mix. Add the eggs, egg yolks, cream and armagnac and blend to a smooth batter, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times. (If preparing ahead, pour the mixture into a pitcher, cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight.)
2. Preheat the oven to 375 F.. Brush a large ovenproof gratin dish, about 10 inches in diameter, with the softened butter, then dust with a little confectioners sugar.
3. Cut the plums in half, remove their stones and pat dry. Melt the butter in a nonstick pan. Dredge the plum halves in sugar, then add to the pan, cut-side down. Cook over a high heat until slightly caramelized at the edges. Transfer the plums to the prepared gratin dish, cut-side down.
4. Give the clafoutis batter a stir, then pour over the plums in the gratin dish. Scatter over the toasted flaked almonds. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until risen and golden brown. Gently press the center of the clafoutis – it should be set. If not, bake for another 5 to 10 minutes.
5. Dust with confectioners sugar and serve warm. Can be served with a dollop of crème fraîche or vanilla ice-cream.