When Apricots Ruled the Southland

TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

Consider the fresh apricot, an archetypal California fruit if ever there was one. Hold it in your hand and feel how the fuzzy roundness fits your palm. Appreciate the golden orange color. Slice it open and feel how tender it is and observe how nicely the kernel falls away from the flesh. Bite in and taste the tangy balance of sweet and sour. Cook it and it melts away in a smooth golden puree.

Apricots are one of those Golden State crops boosters love to brag about--California produces more than 90% of the national total, mostly in the upper San Joaquin Valley, around Stanislaus County.

But it wasn't so awfully long ago that apricots were a big deal down here too. In 1926, there were more apricot trees growing in Southern California than there are today in the entire United States. Trees were thickly planted in Los Angeles County (San Fernando and Antelope valleys), Riverside County (Hemet Valley and the Beaumont-Banning area) and Ventura County (Santa Paula, Fillmore and Moorpark).

"Indications are that our distant patrons are only just beginning to recognize the desirability of the fruit, and their demands will make it well-nigh impossible for us to extend our production beyond profitable limits," wrote Edward Wickson in his 1919 book "California Fruits: How to Grow Them." "In the interior and in the southern coast valleys it yields a paying crop during its third summer in the orchard."

The outlook was bright. "Apricot growers have felt the agricultural depression less than most farmers," wrote H. R. Wellman in a California Agricultural Experiment Station report of 1927. Between 1918 and 1927, the bearing acreage of apricots increased 83%.

"In no other area has the apricot attained the high quality known in California," wrote the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in a March 1946 pamphlet on "Agriculture in Los Angeles County."

"Los Angeles, Riverside and Ventura are the three most important apricot-producing counties in the southern portion of the state." The pamphlet tantalized Easterners--for most of whom a fresh apricot was a fruit of rare exoticism--with the prospect of making $4,000 a year from a 40-acre orchard that cost only $12,000 to $16,000 to establish.

Ironically, the pitch came at a time when the Southern California apricot was already well on its way to extinction. Of the almost 24,000 acres of apricots in Southern California in 1927, fewer than 4,500 acres remained in 1950.

What happened? A combination of things. Urbanization, of course, took its toll. Where once were apricot orchards now stand mini-malls. The change in postwar fruit processing, from an emphasis on dried to canned, hurt the apricot as well. It cost farmers more to produce fruit for canners, who at the same time were unwilling to pay as much for it.

But the fruit itself has to share the blame. Apricots are notoriously difficult to grow, susceptible to spring freezes and hail. They don't like hot summers, either. And fresh apricots are extremely short-lived: on the market only from mid-May to mid-July and almost never found truly tree-ripe because of the difficulty in transporting them.

"To tell you the truth, it's kind of a mystery to me as to why they ever did thrive down here in the first place," says Bob Brendler, a former Ventura County Extension agent, who has been working the area since 1946.

"Mostly, they got pulled out because the farmers just weren't making it," he says. "We had a string of dry weather years and the apricots down here were all grown without irrigation, so when the dry years came, they just couldn't compete with irrigated apricots from the middle and northern part of the state. Apricots are so erratic anyway, and since this area is on the dry side, the only thing I can figure out is that maybe there was a period of time when there was extra moisture.

"I don't think urbanization was a big factor in knocking them off down here. Most of the development didn't start until a long time after the apricots were gone."

With 200 acres of trees, Clarence Everett was one of the big apricot farmers in Moorpark (which was named after a variety of apricot that is widely regarded as the king of fresh apricots). "It just got to be impossible to harvest," says his son Wayne, who still lives in the area. "They told us that our workers couldn't stay in tents, we had to build them houses, that we had to have a flush toilet . . . They just ran us out of business."

And, he says, the whole business about Moorpark and its famous apricot is overblown anyway. "Hell, I've been here all my life and there weren't more than four or five of those trees in the whole county. They never did bear well down here. It's a big joke."

By the start of the '50s, the bulk of apricot production had shifted north, primarily to Santa Clara County, which had always been the most important single apricot county in California.

But that was not to last, either. By 1990, those 16,000 acres had dwindled to 800. What happened this time? Call it San Jose. With the boom in land prices, the Apricot capital turned into Silicon Valley--and the apricot industry moved to Stanislaus County, in the northern San Joaquin Valley. Between 1950 and 1980, apricot plantings in that area quintupled.

Meanwhile, down in Southern California, there's little left of the once-flourishing apricot industry except 150 acres of trees and a lot of memories.

Bill O'Leary, 78, is still tending the pick-it-yourself orchard in Wheeler Canyon near Santa Paula that his father planted in 1903 when he immigrated from Ireland. "We have some trees that are 85 years old, some more than that, I guess," he says.

"When I was growing up, everything that was flat up here was apricots: the Conejo Valley, Simi Valley, all over there around Thousand Oaks, Fillmore, Upper Ojai. . . . Heck, all the way up Ventura Avenue it used to be apricots."

Tom Hall has lived on the K. B. Hall Apricot Ranch in Upper Ojai since 1955, but many of the Royal apricot trees he and his father Pete tend date from the original planting in 1906. And the main house was built in the 1870s and has been declared a Ventura County Historical Landmark.

"Most of our trees are about 80-plus years old, " he says. "Between the termites and everything else, they're almost hollow inside, but they're still putting out fruit."

Last fall, while staying in the hill country of the Italian Piemonte at a wonderful bed-and-breakfast owned by Giuliana Giacosa-Pionzo, I was treated to a breakfast drink of pulp made from apricots grown in her orchard, mixed with a little sparkling water. The recipe is not hers, but comes from a regional cookbook called "Marmellate, Conserve, Liquori" by Sister Germana. It is from the I Segreti dei Conventi (Secrets of the Convent) series of cookbooks by Piemme publishers, Casale Monferrato, Alba.

POLPA DI ALBICOCCHE (Apricot Pulp)

Select apricots that are not too ripe. Wash and dry apricots, cut in halves and remove pits. Pass apricots through food mill fitted with finest disk.

Empty out bottles of clear glass, such as those used for Champagne (naturally, they should be washed and dried with care). Fill bottles well up into neck with apricot pulp. Cork well. Wrap bottles in cloth and put directly in canning kettle. Add water up to necks of bottles. Place kettle over medium heat, bring to boil and simmer 1 hour.

Remove from heat and let bottles cool in canning kettle. When completely cooled, dry and seal tops with sealing wax. Store in cool, dry place.

The balance of flavors in this dish, which is adapted from Claudia Roden's "A Book of Middle Eastern Food," is extraordinary. It is both savory and sweet, and the apricots bring out a whole new range of flavors in the lamb.

ZARDALU POLO (Persian Lamb and Apricot Pilaf)

1/2 cup butter

1 onion, finely chopped

1 pound lean lamb, cubed

Salt, pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 1/2 tablespoons seedless raisins, preferably golden

4 ounces fresh or dried apricots, halved

2 cups long-grain rice, washed in 3 changes of water

Heat butter in heavy pan and fry onion until golden. Add meat and brown on all sides. Season to taste with salt, pepper, turmeric and cinnamon. Mix in raisins and apricots. Add water (about 3/4 cup) to cover. Cover and simmer over very low heat 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours or until meat is very tender. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching, adding water if necessary. Texture should be thick but pourable.

Boil 4 cups water, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and rice. Bring to boil again and boil 2 minutes, then reduce heat, cover pan and cook over low heat 10 to 15 minutes or until almost tender. Fluff with fork.

Arrange rice and stew in alternate layers in heavy saucepan, beginning and ending with layers of rice. Set over very low heat, stretch clean cloth over pot and place cover over cloth. Steam 20 minutes, or until rice is tender. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

503 calories; 248 mg sodium; 78 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 67 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 0.97 gram fiber.

It's best to use ripe apricots for this pie; you can even use the very soft ones that would be too mushy for other uses. If your apricots are not ripe (if you can't pull the apricots apart with your hands, but need a knife to cut them, they aren't very ripe), you may need to increase the sugar in the recipe.

APRICOT CRUMB PIE

1/2 cup butter, softened

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

3/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 pounds ripe apricots

1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell

Combine butter, brown sugar, flour, nutmeg and salt. Mix until crumbly.

Break apricots in half with hands and remove pits. Place apricots, skin side down, in pie shell. Cover with butter mixture.

Bake on bottom shelf of 400-degree oven 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 30 minutes more or until golden brown. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

448 calories; 270 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 53 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.77 gram fiber.

If you're leery of making jam because you don't want to go to the trouble of canning, consider this easy-to-make freezer jam. Cook the fruit with sugar and spice, spoon it into freezer containers and put it away. A few months down the road, you'll be very glad you did. This is from "Dungeness Crab and Blackberry Cobbler," published by Alfred Knopf.

JANIE HIBLER'S APRICOT-NECTARINE SPOON MARMALADE WITH CINNAMON

1 1/2 pounds apricots, halved and pitted

3 nectarines, pitted and diced, skin on

3 cups sugar

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 cinnamon sticks

Combine apricots, nectarines, sugar and lemon juice in medium pan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Continue cooking until jam thickens, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in cinnamon. Pour jam into plastic freezer containers and place cinnamon stick in center of each. Let stand until cool. Cover jam and store in freezer. Makes about 3 2/3 cups.

Each serving contains about:

49 calories; .24 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 12.5 grams carbohydrates; .24 gram protein; 0 fiber.

In "Simple French Food," Richard Olney has a recipe for a wonderful apple-and-bread pudding. We've adapted the recipe and made it with apricots. This is good served slightly warm, with heavy cream or a custard sauce.

APRICOT-AND-BREAD PUDDING

1/2 cup butter

1 pound apricots, pitted and quartered

2 ounces (1 1/2 cups) stale bread crumbs, without crusts

Dash ground cinnamon

1 cup milk

2 eggs

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in saucepan over medium heat. Add and cook apricots, tossing occasionally, until tender and translucent. Remove apricots. Add remaining butter to saucepan and cook bread crumbs over very low heat, stirring regularly, until uniformly golden and crisp.

Spread crumbs in bottom of lightly buttered gratin dish. Arrange apricots on bed of crumbs and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon.

Whisk together milk, eggs, sugar and salt in bowl. Pour liquid slowly over apricots. Bake at 325 degrees 1/2 hour. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

444 calories; 476 mg sodium; 174 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.72 gram fiber.

If you like rose water, you'll love this exotic recipe.

CLAUDIA RODEN'S STUFFED APRICOTS

16 apricots

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/4 cups ground almonds

2 tablespoons rose water

Slit each apricot just enough to remove pit. Place apricots in large pan with lemon juice, 2 tablespoons water and 1 cup sugar. Cover pan and heat very gently, about 10 minutes. From time to time, carefully turn apricots and baste, leaving them whole. When apricots are tender, remove from heat and allow to cool in syrup in pan.

Combine almonds, remaining 1/4 cup sugar and rose water into paste. Remove apricots from pan. Divide almond stuffing among apricots. Place filled apricots in large serving glass bowl (or individual serving dishes) and pour syrup over. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

213 calories; 2 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.59 gram fiber.

This recipe comes from the new cookbook, "From an Italian Garden," by Judith Barrett (Macmillan: 305 pp., $23).

TORTA DI ALBICOCCHE (Peach, Apricot, Nectarine and Plum Tart)

1 basic 9-inch double-crust pastry dough

3 pounds total apricots, nectarines, peaches and/or plums

1/2 cup sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Roll out pastry and press into 9-inch springform pan with removable sides. Set aside enough dough to make strips for lattice-top crust.

Peel nectarines and peaches, if using. Remove pits from all fruit and cut into thick slices.

In large non-aluminum saucepan combine fruit, sugar and lemon juice. Stir well to combine and place pan over medium-high heat. Cook, while stirring, just until fruit begins to liquefy and sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fruit is tender but not mushy and liquid in pan has become quite thick.

Pour fruit filling into crust. Cover with strips of dough to make lattice-top crust and crimp edges of pastry. Place pan on middle rack of 375-degree oven and bake about 35 to 45 minutes, or until crust is evenly golden brown and filling is bubbling. Allow to cool completely before removing sides of pan. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

330 calories; 75 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 51 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.10 grams fiber.

This layered dessert is not quite a pudding. If the apricots are very tart, you may decide to increase the sugar. It is from the new "Unbelievable Microwave Desserts," by Adrienne Welch and Mary Goodbody (Simon & Schuster: $25).

APRICOT DELIGHT

2 pounds ripe apricots

3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca

2 cups heavy whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Toasted sliced almonds, optional

Remove pits from apricots and cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges. Cut each wedge in half crosswise. Place apricots into high-sided 2-quart microwave-safe casserole. Add 3/4 cup sugar, lemon juice and tapioca. Stir until apricot slices are evenly coated. Let stand 15 minutes.

Cover casserole with lid and microwave on HIGH (100% power) 12 to 15 minutes, stirring gently every 3 minutes, until mixture comes to full boil. Mixture is cooked when beads of tapioca become translucent.

Let mixture stand, covered, 10 minutes. Remove lid and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours, until very cold.

Whip cream with remaining 3 tablespoons sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks start to form.

Fill 8 wine or dessert glasses about 1/3 full with apricot mixture. Cover apricot layer with about 3 tablespoons of whipped cream. Cover cream layer with remaining apricot mixture.

Top with dab of remaining whipped cream. Garnish with sliced almonds. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

361 calories; 24 mg sodium; 82 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.68 gram fiber.

Food styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane

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