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Marvelous Mirabelle Plum Trees

The mirabelle plum tree bears heirloom fruit that’s perfect for jams, jellies, tarts, and brandy. The fruit is essential to culinary traditions in the Lorraine region of France.

| Winter 2016-2017

  • Mirabelle plums are intensely flavored and firmer-fleshed than many other plum varieties.
    Photo by Dreamstime/pixavril
  • From eating fresh to making jams, jellies, pies, brandies and more, mirabelles are a remarkably versatile fruit.
    Photo by istock/Bernd Wittelsbach
  • Free stone fruits make processing mirabelles relatively easy, despite their small size.
    Photo by Fotolia/M. Studio
  • Many people who find plums to be mealy and bland will prefer smaller, firmer, more intensely flavored mirabelles.
    Photo by istock/Zbigniew Kubasiak
  • The author's host family harvests mirabelles in Lorraine, France.
    Photo by Hannah Wernet
  • Backyard gardeners will appreciate the beauty, productivity, and manageable size of mirabelle plum trees.
    Photo by istock/dhoxax

While most of the world associates France with the grape, the mirabelle plum tree (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) is queen in that country’s Lorraine region. Little-known in North America, this small, pale heirloom fruit is essential to Lorraine’s culinary traditions — and you can grow it in the United States, too.

Eighty percent of the world’s commercial mirabelle harvest comes from northeastern France, where Lorraine’s cuisine is unique. The fruit is made into jams, jellies, pies, ice cream, compotes, and every other sweet treat imaginable. (Here’s a French recipe for a rustic mirabelle plum tart.) Mirabelles are distilled to make a local obsession, the fruit brandy known as eau de vie. (In the Lorraine dialect, it’s more common to hear the German word for eau de vie: Schnapps.)

Lorraine is justifiably proud of its favorite fruit, which holds a central place in its cuisine. In summer, the city of Metz holds a two-week mirabelle celebration, and similar festivals pop up all over the region. Designated a superior regional product, mirabelle plum trees have protected status. Many families cultivate one or two trees in their gardens, in shared orchards, or in rows in fields. Gathering the mirabelle fruit and distilling Schnapps are annual community events that have persisted for hundreds of years. Although the region has had a violent and bloody past, switching between French and German control many times, its love for the mirabelle plum has endured.

People who consider most plums mealy and bland will prefer smaller, firmer, and more intensely flavored mirabelles. Two popular cultivars in Europe are ‘Mirabelle de Metz’ and ‘Mirabelle de Nancy.’ The skin of ‘Mirabelle de Nancy’ fruit is a stronger yellow, and the flesh is firmer and better suited to cooking or distilling. ‘Mirabelle de Metz’ is a blush pink color, tastes sweeter, and is good for eating straight from the tree. Robust mirabelles will tolerate most temperate climates with adequate rainfall. An excellent choice for backyard gardeners, mirabelle plum trees stay a manageable size, usually 12 to 16 feet in height at maturity. They’re partially self-fertile, meaning it’s a good idea to have another mirabelle tree, or a different plum cultivar, in the area for cross-pollination and a better harvest.

Plum Personal

I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in Lorraine, living with a family who makes their own delicious mirabelle fruit jams, pies, and Schnapps. The family’s trees are located in the middle of a grain field — a line of trees that stands up to harsh winter winds and provides a haven for wildlife.

The whole family came together for harvest a few years ago when I helped them gather a bumper crop of heirloom fruit. Old bedsheets were laid on the ground around the trees to catch the falling plums. Uncle Armand brought out a special homemade tool, a long broom handle with a hook on one end. He hooked it onto a laden branch and used the weight of his body to shake the mirabelles free. The golden fruits tumbled to the ground, and other family members hurried to gather them before Uncle Armand could trample them in his enthusiasm. This bumper harvest would keep the whole family in Schnapps for years to come. Bottles of Schnapps in the patriarch’s basement date back decades; many are older than his daughter, who is herself a grandmother.

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