Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Pruniers / Cerisiers : Mirabelle / Bigarreau

The Mirabelle is a kind of small edible plum grown in several countries across Europe but especially associated with the region of Lorraine in France.  The two main varieties are connected with the cities Metz and Nancy.

The oval Mirabelle fruit has golden skin, often specked or flushed with red. Mirabelles are widely used in fruit tarts and cakes, and they are the most common plum used for making plum brandy.
The Mirabelle de Nancy being very sweet and tangy is often eaten fresh, the smaller Metz variety being preferred for jams.

Some people call the Mirabelle plum Prunus domestica ssp. syriaca.  (According to legend, the tree was propagated from a wild plum found in Anatolia.) Other people place it in Prunus institia (alongside damsons and bullaces).

Though it looks an awful lot like a cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) it is not regarded as one and it certainly doesn't come into bloom so early. Nevertheless, the two taxa are often confused; partly because they both have small fruit (and cherry plums are often yellow, among other colours);  partly as a result of confusion between the words "mirabelle" and "Myrobalan" (the cherry plum being also known as the Myrobalan Plum).

Mirabelle de Nancy

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Mirabelle de Metz

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And so from plums to cherries, or pruniers to cerisiers if you prefer.

"Bigarreau" is a word used in naming many sweet cherry varieties.

Ultimately the term comes from the Middle French "bigarrer", meaning to variegate.

The word came into 16th century Scots (OED begary). It didn't survive long but the Scots poets made excellent use of it.

Begaried is the sapphire pend
With spraings of scarlet hue,
And preciously from end to end
Damasked white and blue

The sapphire vault is variegated
with streaks of scarlet hue,
and from end to end exquisitely
patterned in white and blue.

(Alexander Hume, from The Day Estivall)

 "Bigarreau" therefore originally meant variegated, marbled, parti-colored. And it seems that the original Bigarreau cherries were white cherries with red-and-white skins. The fruits were also notably large and firm-fleshed, and it's actually this last quality that has become the defining characteristic.

Many growers still use the following tripartite scheme to classify the sweet cherries:

Prunus avium var duracina. Bigarreau Cherry.  Large fruits, hard-fleshed varieties.
Prunus avium var juliana. Heart Cherry. Large fruits, soft-fleshed varieties.
(Prunus avium var avium. Common or Wild Cherry. Small fruits.)

Bigarreau Napoleon - a famous variety known as "Naps" by cherry aficionados

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Consequently, many Bigarreau cherry varieties don't have mottled skins but nevertheless have the term Bigarreau in their name as an indication of type and ancestry.

Merton Bigarreau produced in the UK in 1924, from Knights Early Black and Bigarreau Napoleon

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Bigarreau Moreau - an old French variety, can be prone to fruit splitting

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Bigarreau Burlat - one of the most popular varieties in France

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I first became aware of the word "bigarreau" by a rather indirect means: I came across the bizarre word "bigarrå" in a Swedish detective novel and wanted to find out what sort of tree I was reading about. It seems that "bigarrå" is a more commonplace word in Swedish than "bigarreau" is in English.

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