Updated: Jan 27
The patron of Chez Prune wears a US army jacket. He is tall and willowy, he greets everyone with a broad smile, he’s a gentle giant who oozes charisma.
He leads the troupe. The two barmen who look like twins with their shaved heads and beards, I call them the upside-down men. The waiter with the gillet puffer because he attends to the terrace tables, but when he passes behind the bar everyone is forced to breathe in. And the elderly monsieur in charge of the coffee machine, he lacks a delicate touch, coffee is hurled at customers, saucers are dropped, cups broken. It sounds like the tuning of the percussion in an orchestra. To his staff, the patron is known simply as Prune.
Prune comes from Alsace. He grew up on a plum farm, ever since he was a toddler, he helped his father with the crop; planting, picking, sorting, selling. And his mother with the pitting, peeling, crushing and cooking. Everything they ate contained plums. The little family were tall with fine silhouettes, this they put down to their diet of plums. They had a peaceful life ignorant of events outside of their farm.
Then in 1940 the Germans occupied Alsace and took control of the distribution of plums, which meant they had no money to live on, they tried to barter their plums with neighbouring farms, but this was soon outlawed. This didn’t bother the family; they continued to cultivate the land and eat the plums they grew. Once a week on a Friday evening Father Prune would go to the village of Millefeuille, a few kilometres away, with a little knapsack of plums which he would gamble over cards. The Nazis tolerated this. So, if father played well on Friday they would eat well on Saturday, a little wine, bread, even butter was possible. But for the rest of the week, it was plums.
One morning in October 1942, when Prune was still a young boy, he woke up and his father was not there. His mother and he looked everywhere. The Nazis had begun to induct Alsatian men into the German army and rumour had it that his father had run away to fight for La Resistance. So from then on, they were two on the farm. Prune’s childhood was over, he now attended the weekly card games, at first ostracised because of his father’s abandonment as well as his age, he was just 12 far too young for adult games. But Prune persisted and slowly earned the elderly men’s respect (those not conscripted) and became an active member of the group. This allowed him and his mother to live out the war with something else to eat other than plums.
At the end of the war, Prune decided to sell the farm and he and his mother moved to Paris, to a small apartment in the 10th arrondissement by the Canal Saint-Martin. Prune wasted no time in becoming active with a communist sympathizing movement, he mixed with Russians, Poles, Romanians all who liked to drink vodka. Prune couldn’t stand the stuff, it felt like someone was extinguishing a cigarette inside his stomach. So, he set about experimenting with potatoes and plums, turning their apartment salon into a makeshift laboratory.
And so, their new life began, his mother would shop at the market for the best plums in France, return home and cook plum dishes, she in turn, sold her fabulous plum tarts, soufflés, clafoutis, pies, crumbles at le marché Saint-Martin. Between his activist commitments, Prune attended university to study Chemistry, at night he set about perfecting his plum vodka and sold the fruits of his experiments to his communist troupe. His comrades adored it, rather than the acid they had been drinking before Prune's tipple melted down the oesophagus, it was sweet and slightly spiced, it was heavenly for the troupe!
Mother and son lived well on their shared income, word began to spread about the delicious plum tarts and the plum spiced vodka, their circulation grew but soon there was no room for both of them to operate in the small apartment so Prune moved to the cave under the apartment and employed an assistant to oversee the process. The assistant was called Aubergine, (she was actually called Audrey and had worn big glasses all her life. But since she joined the communist movement, she had had to throw away her glasses as they were considered a bourgeois commodity. The troupe saw for the first time the real colour of her eyes, a hypnotic deep purple so they renamed her Aubergine.)
Working in a cave suited Aubergine. She found comfort in the shadows, in the close proximity of the potatoes and plums, the dripping sounds of the beakers. Everything was close by; this suited her myopia. Prune would come and go, he didn’t sit his final exams, he had learnt what he needed to make plum spiced vodka and his sales were booming, his reputation soared, everyone wanted to be his friend, his charisma was endemic.
Then one Sunday afternoon mother, Prune and Aubergine were enjoying the end of their lunch with a delicious plum clafoutis when there was a knock at the door. Mother answered the door to two official-looking gentlemen, who were cordially invited in for a slice of clafoutis. The men relished the dessert so much they almost forget why they had interrupted the family during their lunch. Finally, the man with the tweed beret addressed them –
‘we have come to tell you that we have found your father’.
Three dessert forks dropped simultaneously into the almost empty bowls of clafoutis. Monsieur Tweed beret had their attention, but he preferred to finish the last delicious morceau of clafoutis before going on. Three pairs of eyeballs watched in eager anticipation.
M. Tweed beret finally finished and went on,
‘As you may know your father was a famous Resistance fighter during the war, he lead the famous Lyon faction, however towards the end of the war he was compromised, the Nazis discovered his hideout and were planning his assinssination. Your father emigrated just in time, to the Soviet Union and continued to fight for the Allied cause from there. He met his second wife, they had a baby girl, and so after the war, he stayed on attending to a small shared crop in the Ural Mountains. However, he soon got on the wrong side of Stalin and was accused of espionage and sent to work in a gulag. A change in administration and Khrushchev moved him to a Moscow prison whilst he awaited trial.’
At this point M. Tweed stops and asked ever so politely if he might be allowed another slice of clafoutis. Mother ran to the kitchen to fetch the baking tray and practicallt threw the rusty tin at the distuished twead clad gentleman. The second gentlemen with a handlebar moustache continued,
‘Your father thought he would live out his days in that tiny little prison cell, which was preferred to the gulag, but as fate would have in 1960 he got a new cellmate, Francis Gary Powers an American, you might have heard of him on the news, non?’
Three voices barked in unison ‘Non!’
‘Your father and Gary Powers became very close, so close that when M. Powers was exchanged in 1962 for Rudolf Abdel, he insisted that his French friend be bundled into the deal. So your father was transferred to the United States and after a lengthy debriefing settled in Orange County California near to his good friend Gary.' He paused.
'The problem was your father had never eaten any processed food before, and all through the debrief the American's plied him with hamburgers, milkshakes and apple pies - which we all know have never seen an apple. His digestive system couldn't cope, the cancer took him and it was all over in 6 months.' Another pause.
'Your father left you two things.’
At this cue, M. Tweed reached into his briefcase and produced a brown paper bag and an opened envelope with the word ‘Prune’ written in the handwriting of his father.
Tweed set off again,
‘naturally for security reasons the Americans had to check the contents…your father will be given a proper burial at the Pantheon and remembered as one of the greatest fighters of our country’. To which the two gentlemen got up and sang the final verse of the Marseillaise and then took their leave, not before congratulating mother on the success of her clafoutis.
Prune opened the bag and found a US army jacket; inside the collar he saw the initials F.G.P. Inside the envelope there was a recipe.
With the money, Prune had made from the plum vodka he opened a café on the canal and called it ‘Chez Prune’ – where everything served was made of plums. His mother oversaw the kitchen and still baked herself the fabulous plum desserts she was famous for. Prune married Aubergine, who took charge of stock and the production of the plum vodka in the cave of the café. And Prune himself directed the show on the café floor, always wearing his US army jacket, he was never seen without it.
And what of the recipe his father left him? The receipe had over 100 ingredients, the main one being obviously plums, but also cabbage, dill, oranges, worms, leather, clay. It also required some very tricky chemistry processes, Prune meticulous followed the letter of his father’s hand taking him over a year to make a tiny pot of the essence. But it was worth every second, it had the most glorious scent Prune had ever smelt.
One day Prune put a tiny drop on a napkin, and he watched a blissful happiness fall over the café. Sheer joy presided. From then on, Prune would put a little drop on a napkin each day and watch his café transform from grumbling Parisians to happy, serene individuals. Once Aubergine knocked the bottle over a cut on her arm and the cut healed right before her eyes. Mother dapped some on her wrinkles and they disappeared without a trace. The essence was truly magical.
Chez Prune became one of the most popular establishments in Paris – not because of his haut-cuisine or chic interiors - but because Parisians just felt happy when they went there, they couldn’t put their finger on what it was, but they went back for more plum flavoured dishes. A pillar of the 10th arrondissement community since the 1960s, Chez Prune has opened its doors to political activists of all colours, bohemians, bourgeois, fonctionnaires, tourists. All are greeted by the big beaming smile of Monsieur Prune, still running the show in his US army jacket.