What would you prefer: a prune or a dried plum? They're the same thing, of course, but the latter has more seductive connotations. That's why the sticky brown-black fruit has been renamed in the US.
Prunes come in handy when the only fresh plums on sale are the tough-skinned, furry-textured imported sort, although, if we're honest, their natural sweetness, squidgy succulence and chewy darkness give them more of the wanton appeal of chocolate than fruit.
Many prunes we eat come from California, but their European base is the south-west of France, renowned for its pruneaux d'Agen with their glorious affinity for armagnac. In autumn, markets there sell these plums fresh or mi-cuit (half-dried) before they disappear into kilns for more thorough dehydration.
Why are they good for me?
They are a great source of phenols, which help to prevent oxygen damage to cells. Their sweetness doesn't make them the best fruit choice for slimmers, but their soluble fibre does slow down absorption of glucose, stabilising blood-sugar levels. Prunes are one of the best foods for vitamin K, vital for strong bones and blood clotting.
Amid much controversy, the European Food Safety Agency has ruled that prunes are not a laxative and can't be sold as such. Be your own judge: suck them and see.
Where to buy, what to pay?
If you're up for a bit of soaking and not too posh to spit out stones, unstoned prunes are cheapest – around £5.50/kg, possibly cheaper in bulk from a whole food shop or co-op. Softer prunes cost £6-£8/kg. French Agen and organic prunes command a small premium – about £8.50-£11/kg.
• Joanna Blythman is the author of What To Eat (Fourth Estate, £16.99). To order a copy for £11 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Rosie Sykes's pear and prune pancakes
These utterly delicious little pillows make a splendid breakfast or pudding. You could even have them with bacon, sausages or black pudding for brunch.
½ tsp salt
220g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
30g soft brown sugar
2 medium-size firm pears, peeled, coarsely grated and tossed in lemon juice
80g pitted prunes, roughly chopped
Grated zest and juice of half a lemon
Flavourless oil for frying
1 Whisk together the eggs, milk and salt.
2 Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl, stir in the brown sugar, make a well in the centre and gradually pour in the liquid until you achieve a smooth batter. Stir in the pears, prunes and lemon zest.
3 Heat a thin layer of oil in a heavy-based frying pan over a low-to-medium heat. Drop a large spoonful of batter into the pan and flatten it out a little to ensure it cooks in the centre, then fry until the bottom is set and golden brown.
4 Flip the little pancakes over and cook them for an additional two or three minutes until firm. They can be served immediately with a dollop of creme fraiche, but will happily stay warm for a while.
• This article was mistakenly illustrated with a picture of some dates - also dry and purplish-brown, but probably not quite as tasty with pancakes. This has been rectified.