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.
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.
Distillation is a great way to preserve and store a large mirabelle crop. After harvest, the family stores the fruit in large barrels fitted with airlocks that allow gasses to escape but no bacteria to enter. The mirabelle fruits ferment throughout autumn, substantially decreasing in volume. This is typically done in a basement or garage. If the fruit ferments correctly, there will be no bad odor.
When the heirloom fruit has finished the fermentation process — usually two to three months, evidenced by a lack of bubbles in the airlock — the fermented mash is ready to be distilled. The production of Schnapps marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Children who live far away return home to help. Many Lorraine families rent an ancient Schnapps burner for a weekend before passing it on to a neighbor. Most of these home distillers learn the skill from their fathers or grandfathers.
My host family’s father, Jean-Paul, explains how the process works: “The fruit is distilled twice. From the first distillation you have a very rough Schnapps, which has to be distilled again. From the second distillation, the first parts (fore shots) are poisonous, and must be discarded. Some men who produce it here only throw away a small glass, but I throw away a big glass.” (Jean-Paul aims for quality over quantity.) “Then you have the Schnapps, which is very strong and should be mixed with distilled water until it is 40 percent.”
Not all the brandy is destined to be drunk, and it can be used for other applications around the home. Jean-Paul says, “The Schnapps produced at the end of the distillation is not good, so some of the old folk keep it for cleaning windows, treating wounds, and so on.”
Growing Mirabelle Plum Trees
The United States hosts some mirabelle tree producers. The tree cannot be grown from seed, and must be grafted onto stronger rootstock. The grower must be careful that the rootstock doesn’t send up suckers, and must prune them back vigorously when they appear. Some reliable producers in the U.S. are Greenmantle Nursery, Raintree Nursery, and Trees of Antiquity.
Mirabelle trees do well in most temperate zones. They will not produce in northern areas with very late springs or locales with very hot summers. In dry years, mulching around the base of the tree with grass clippings can help retain moisture.
Autumn and winter are the best times to plant and prune mirabelle plum trees in Lorraine. Growers aim to create an upright shape, retaining just three or four main branches and keeping the center of the tree open. In the United States, the best times to plant are late fall and early spring, or any time the trees are dormant. Other than pruning and removing suckers, there isn’t much labor involved with growing mirabelles. As with many fruit trees, glut years are often followed by a few sparse harvests.
Mirabelle Plum Trees
BOTANICAL NAME: Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca
FRUIT: Small, oval, yellow dotted with red, free stone
BLOOM / HARVEST: Late
HEIGHT: 12 to 16 feet
SPACING: 12 to 16 feet
POLLINATION: Benefits from growing a different plum cultivar with concurrent bloom period close-by
YEARS TO BEAR: 2 to 5 years
BEST AREAS TO GROW: Zones 5 to 9
Hannah Wernet grew up on a sheep farm in Wales, and currently teaches and writes in Austria, where she dreams of a self-sufficient life in the French countryside. Follow her blog at Season Generously.