My parents used to have this fabulous apricot tree in our backyard. I remember swimming in the pool, and eating apricots while treading water, the weird combination of the smell of chlorine on my fingers, the sweet fruit in my mouth. My sister and I used to climb up on the play structure my father had built for us, and sit atop the thing top pick the tree-ripened apricots. We sat there, all dark, farmer’s tanned limbs and sticky hands, and we would eat these apricots, warm from the sun, plump with juice and flavor, and just devour them until we were stuffed. Every time I eat a perfect little apricot, I think of this memory.
The apricot, Prunus armeniaca, is part of the genus that includes all cleft fruit (fruit with that line extending from the stem to the bottom) which includes cherries, plums, peaches, and almonds. At one time, the apricot was thought to be native to Armenia where seeds from the Copper Age (fifth millennium B.C.) were found, hence its scientific name. However, the method for determining the origin of plant species by the original regions where plant domestication started, called the Vavilov Center of Diversity, places the origins of the apricot in China before the Copper Age (this fact will end a month-long dispute between me and a co-worker of mine). Alexander the Great is credited with bringing the apricot to Greece. The Roman general Lucullus then brought it and other stone fruits to Europe in the first century B.C. Spanish missionaries brought apricots to California where the first recorded major production of the fruit occurred in 1972.
My favorite variety of apricot is the late-season Blenheim which has its origins in the royal gardens of Luxembourg, why it is also sometimes referred to as the Royal Blenheim. This perfect specimen of apricot is slightly acidic and has a wonderful floral and honeyed aroma. It ripens from the inside-out, like all apricots, so the fruit is often harvested when it has a slight green tinge on the outside. It will continue to ripen at room temperature in storage.
Every year around this time, orchard stands have crates heaping of apricots for sale. They can hardly sell them quickly enough! I love to buy a little bag to eat fresh, and then an additional giant box of “cosmetically challenged” or overripe ones to use for jam or pie. I have always enjoyed the bounty of this fruit, its seemingly endless supply. But this year, I had to wonder, “Where are my heaps of apricots?” The farmers’ markets seemed to have some, but not many, and not any of particularly great quality.
Riverdog Farm has a nice little grove of apricots that turn out some delicious fruit, typically around this year, so I called them to find out what was happening with their crop. It turns out that there Mother Nature played a cruel trick on the apricots over the past year. The trees prefer to have a frosty winter to encourage good bud production, but we had an
unseasonably warm December. When the trees finally budded and the lovely blossoms came out, the orchard experienced torrential rains that washed away so many of the flowers and so much of the pollen. The coup de grace was that when the precious fruit that survived all of the adverse conditions finally became ripe through the cold spring, we experienced more unexpected storms that left the fruit to split and spoil. All the additional moisture has also contributed to leaf curl which damages the leaves of the tree. All is not lost, however, because the later crops of apricots are still somewhat promising.
It is humbling to see what a few unseasonable weather patterns can do to an entire crop—and for some, an entire livelihood. These whims of nature can happen in all varying degrees of severity, sometimes small enough that only the farmers notice. We as consumers only see the end products of their travail—beautifully grown produce, ripe and delicious. The farmers usually quietly endure setbacks with strength and optimism that is so much of what makes them that admirable breed of human. They farm for beauty, righteousness, and deliciousness, and it’s nothing short of backbreaking. So the next time you go to the market, resist the urge haggle. Chat with your farmer, and tell them how much you love what they bring to our community table, because in these uncertain times, that can sometimes be all the payment they receive.
Love your local (apricot) farmer!