For a host of reasons ranging from health benefits and versatility to tangy good taste it’s time for prunes to have their day in the sun.
Ann Furner is a woman on a mission. She’s hell bent on helping the humble prune overcome what she sees as decades of bad press. If she has her way, prunes will overcome their nana image and no longer be the butt of bad jokes about starting a movement.
“For too long prunes have been regarded as nursery food, or something the elderly eat to keep themselves regular,” she says. “Prunes have so many health benefits that they should be up there with quinoa and kale in terms of trendiness.”
Prunes offer a combination of antioxidants, fibre, iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and Vitamin A that can assist in combating a variety of medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and digestive problems. They are low GI, which makes them effective for weight control as they make you to feel full and sustain energy for a longer time.
They also help prevent sugar cravings and can assist in alleviating symptoms of pregnancy such as nausea and high blood pressure. Their iron, vitamin K and beta carotene contents are more reasons to embrace the fruit. And yes, their high natural fibre content means they are great for digestive health. In these times, when it seems gut health is primary preoccupation of many, it’s a wonder they haven’t been accorded hero status.
Of course, Ann has a vested interest in seeing the prune recognised for what she calls its superfood properties. She and her husband, Anthony Nehme, grow prunes on their 50-acre (20-hectare) farm at Yenda in the NSW Riverina district and she is also the Australian Prune Industry Association’s (APIA) industry development officer.
Ann grew up on a broadacre farm where her parents grew rice and later diversified into cotton. She studied horticulture and agronomy before gaining a position with the Yenda Co-op, which is where she met Anthony, an accountant, who is now the company secretary. “I always wanted to be my own boss,” she explains. “So in 2009 when the opportunity came up to buy a farm, it was too good to pass up.”
The farm already had a 16-acre (6.5-hectare) prune orchard and Ann and Anthony have subsequently pulled up a vineyard to plant more prune trees. While they grow four varieties of prunes, all are clones of the French D’Agen plum, which is ideal for drying because of its high level of natural sugars, which give it an intense flavour when dehydrated, firm skin and ability to reabsorb moisture in cooking.
“Australians currently consume between 5000 and 6000 tonnes of prunes each year,” Ann says. “The Australian industry produces about 3000 tonnes, so there is room for controlled growth. There are about 60 growers in the industry with the majority of these located near Griffith in the Riverina. A smaller number of growers is based in Young in the Hilltops area of NSW. All Australian prunes are tunnel dried within 24 hours of harvesting, which allows our growers to be confident that the highest quality fruit is dried.
One of the major limitations on expansion of the industry is the availability of dehydrators. “There are only 20 dehydrators in our area, so there is a limit to how many prunes they can dry each day,” she explains. “As all the fruit ripens in late summer and early autumn, there is high demand for the dryers. At the moment Anthony and I rely on contractors to harvest and dry our fruit, but we are looking at new technology from Switzerland, which may allow us to have more control over our harvest and drying.”
As the local industry is small, Ann adds that Australian growers are interested in the research and development work being done overseas. “APIA is a small contributor, relative to the size of our industry, to a global prune research fund and we are waiting on research that is being carried out in California on the effects of prunes on bone health,” she explains. “We’re hopeful that within a couple of years, we will be able to quantify exactly how many prunes a day will help combat certain conditions
In the meantime, in a bid to shake off the “stewed prune and rice pudding” image the Australian Prune Industry Association has enlisted the help of chefs David Campbell of Berry’s Hungry Duck and Nowra’s Wharf Restaurant and Nick Gardner of Eschalot at Berrima to come up with contemporary ways of cooking with prunes.
They range from pairings with spice in curries and tagines and lending a distinctive tang to a cosmopolitan cocktail to providing a rich caramel fudge flavour to all manner of desserts and baked dishes.
“Prunes are a great complement to white meats such as pork, chicken and quail,” Nick says. “They add a beautiful sweetness to balance with fat and salt.” David adds that the reason he loves cooking with prunes is their versatility. “They have great natural sweetness,” he says. “But more importantly they have that elusive umami, that fifth dimension of flavour that Japanese chefs know so well.”
The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 20.4. Click here to subscribe to our magazine.
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Words Kirsty McKenzie
Food Photography Lisa Madigan
Farm Photography Marie Raccanello