One mid-July Saturday, while I was combing the aisles of the Berkeley Bowl grocery store, a small hand-lettered sign caught my eye. "French prunes" it read. Unlike the other bins where plums were piled freeform or in packing crate trays, these plums were packaged in small plastic bags. The prune plums were distinctly smaller than their neighbors and a dusky purple-violet instead of dark marroon or blackish purple. I grabbed a bag and dropped it into my overflowing cart.

At home later, stopping only to deposit the grocery bag on the kitchen table, I pulled out the bag of plums and popped one into my mouth. First, a candy-like sweetness spread over my tongue, then the aroma reached my nostrils, an evocative smokey sugar scent like the smell of fallen fruit melting on a hot summer sidewalk.

The French plum, Prunus domesticus, is the common plum of Europe -- the accidental offspring of the sloe plum, a spiney shrub of central and northern Europe, and the Balkan plum, from which the brandy slibovitz is made. Cultivated and grown throughout Europe and England over the centuries, this small, egg-shaped plum is grown primarily to be dried and canned or packaged -- as prunes. Rarely is it sold fresh.

As Fresno has been known as the "Raisin Capital of the World," one might have called San Jose, California the "Prune City," in the early decades of this century. For then, most of the world's prune plums were grown in the Santa Clara Valley at the foot of San Francisco Bay and sun-dried in the cannery yards of San Jose. The high sugar content of the French or prune plum allows it to be dried without fermenting in the center, and offered an advantage to commercial growers before refrigeration and freeze-drying were commonplace technologies. The dried plums could then be shipped by rail across the country at little cost and with no spoilage. In 1902, over 140 million pounds of prunes were produced in California, about one third of the present day crop.

Unfortunately, it seems that as a result of the commercial success of the dried French plum we have been denied the pleasures of the fresh.

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