The Bay Area is in the middle of its short season for fresh apricots.
The apricot is thought to have originated in China, with first cultivation by humans around 2000 BCE. The fruit spread west along the Silk Road as caravans carried gems, spices, ceramics and other fine goods between East and West. By the 1st century BCE, apricot trees had reached Iran, Greece, and Rome. The Greeks were unaware of the fruit's Chinese origins and thought that the fruit originated in Armenia, a mistake that is preserved in the apricot's botanical name Prunus armeniaca. The common English name derives from the Latin praecocium, meaning precocious, a reference to the fruit's early ripening.
In the "great apricot belt" that spans from Turkey to Turkistan, you can find a dazzling variety of apricots: "white, black, grey, and pink apricots, from pea to peach sized, with flavors equally varied." (The source of the quote and information above is The Oxford Companion to Food.)
At one time, the Santa Clara Valley — today's Silicon Valley — was the epicenter of California apricot production. Computers and electronics pushed out the orchards in the 1960s and '70s. Today's main apricot lands are in Stanislaus County and are also under financial and development pressure. Last year the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about farmers ripping up apricot orchards in California in favor of nut trees or suburban development:
That noble and delicate fruit, first planted in California in the gardens of the Spanish missions and today produced in orchards covering 14,500 acres in the San Joaquin Valley, is endangered.
Consider that in 1980, 24,900 acres in the valley were devoted to apricots, a little over 70 percent more than today.
Foreign competition and a shrinking market have produced static returns for growers as the prices they receive for almonds and other crops have climbed. Meanwhile, increasing production costs and a tight labor supply have helped place the California apricot industry in jeopardy.
Just in the past decade, apricot production in California has fallen about 48 percent. The ranks of growers are shrinking, with about 50 major operators today compared with 100 five years ago.
During the boom times for California apricots — the '20s and '30s — the Blenheim (also known as the Royal or the Royal Blenheim) was one of the most popular varieties. Not only does it have excellent flavor and aroma, but also dries well (Trader Joe's sells dried Blenheim apricots). These days, however, the Blenheim is slowly disappearing because it is a challenge to get to market, as a 2004 article by Chronicle writer Janet Fletcher recounted:
"When I retire, I think they're [the Blenheim apricot trees] going to become alfalfa fields," says Zoria of his Blenheim orchards. "I don't have anybody in the family who wants to pick it up." His Sicilian grandfather planted apricots in the San Jose area in 1920, and the family used to sell one or two tons of fresh Blenheims a day from its retail farm stand. But sending the apricots through conventional distribution channels to supermarkets is another matter.
"They're so delicate, it's almost impossible to put them in the fresh market," says Zoria. "I've thought of packing them in egg cartons, because once you've eaten a Blenheim, you won't eat anything else. I've racked my brain, but I'm out of ideas."
...Rick Knoll, who sells some of his 30 acres of Blenheims at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, says shoppers choose the full-colored Pattersons 10-to-1 over his tastier Blenheims. "But we're on a campaign to change that," says Knoll. "Blenheims can be like candy if done right. Get them in people's mouths and they sell themselves."
Slow Food USA has put the Blenheim apricot into its Ark of Taste. Blenheim apricots are in season right now, so if you see them, grab a pound or two. Don't worry if they have a slight green hue, they look that way even when perfectly ripe.
Although pure apricots are on the decline in California, they have been crossed with plums in various ways to create apriums, pluots, and plumcots, as detailed by Shuna at Bay Area Bites.
Adding apricots to clafoutis
When they're in season, I like to bake apricots in various desserts, with one of my favorites being clafoutis. Clafoutis is a very thick vanilla custard studded with fruit and baked in a hot oven. The high heat creates a golden crust on the outside and generates interesting flavors that custard never has. The preparation dates from the 1860s and the name derives from the word clafir, which means "to fill" in a regional dialect. The term "fill" doesn't refer to the form of the dessert — nothing is stuffed into anything else — but to its effect: the dessert is hearty and filling.
Butter for the skillet or baking dish
1 T. vanilla extract
6 T. sugar
1 1/4 c. milk
2 T. kirsch or other appropriate liqueur (amaretto, brandy, apricot brandy)
A pinch of salt
3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups pitted cherries
1 1/2 cups pitted fresh apricots
Powdered sugar for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 425 F (215 C).
2. Generously butter a skillet or baking dish. Then, optionally sprinkle some turbinado (raw) or demerrera sugar into the dish. (The sugar will carmelize in the oven, creating rich flavors in the crust.)
3. Cut the fruit into bite-size pieces: cherries in half or quarters, apricots in quarters or eighths.
4. Put the vanilla extract, eggs, sugar, milk, liqueur, and salt into a blender. Blend for a few seconds. Add the flour and then blend until the mixture is smooth, about 1 minute.
5. Pour batter into skillet, place fruit on top.
6. Bake for 30 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean and the top is golden brown.
7. Sprinkle the top with powdered sugar, if desired.