The Chinese ideogram for apricot, I recently noted with delight, depicts an open mouth under a tree. Such is the ideal expression of this exquisite yet perishable fruit, alluringly blushed, lusciously juicy and sweet, wafting a musky fragrance that seems at once familiar and exotic.
But although apricots can attain utter perfection in California (which produces close to 95% of America’s crop), most of the time, unless you’re lucky enough to have your own tree, it’s a miracle to find one with real flavor.
Part of the problem is that apricots are typically picked while they’re less than ripe, so they’re firm but tasteless. In recent decades, urbanization and low prices for dried apricots have chased producers from the best growing areas near San Francisco Bay and in coastal valleys, where the gentle climate lets the fruit develop slowly to reach full flavor.
As growers shifted production to cheaper land in the Central Valley, they abandoned the old standard variety, the tender-fleshed Blenheim, which turns to mush in the valley’s harsh heat. They planted the Patterson, originally developed for canning, and the Castlebrite, a bland early-season variety that might serve as a poster child for specious commercial fruit.
I am a lifelong apricot fanatic, however, and such setbacks have only intensified my determination to track down the remaining sources of great ‘cots. As soon as I hear of an intriguing apricot, I pack my truck and head off to investigate.
At times I’ve turned orange from overindulgence, but I’ve tasted some amazing fruit, from the beloved Blenheim to legendary and little-known varieties, old and new, red, white and black. Some may even bear the seeds of better days to come for apricot lovers.
Remnants of an Empire
In the early 20th century, thousands of acres of apricots flourished in the Southland, but today only two or three sizable plantings remain. We’re lucky we still have K.B. Hall Ranch in Ojai.
When I first telephoned Tom Hall, the youngest of seven brothers, it seemed ominous that he was working on a screenplay, “The Orchard,” based on Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s play about a family’s vacillation over selling ancestral land.
Last July, after the Halls decided to keep their property, Hall showed me around their 20 acres of apricots. We walked through the listing old barn, where mule collars hung covered with dust, past the rusting carcasses of ancient farm equipment, to the oldest part of the orchard, planted in 1906.
The fragile trees, many of them drooped under a bumper crop of downy golden Blenheims. I bit into one, bending over to keep the juice from dribbling down my chin, and rejoiced in the sweet-tart tang of a real apricot, with the concentrated flavor imparted by dry-farming.
Nearby, under a long tin-roofed shed, a radio played Mexican songs as Hall’s wife, Laura, and three local teenagers deftly cut ripe ‘cots in half, flicked out the pits and arranged the fruits on old redwood trays. When they had filled a dozen trays, the Halls piled them on a trolley cart and pushed them along narrow tracks down a gentle slope to the drying yard, where they spread them out in the sun.
For one more year, at least, the farm’s traditional rhythm continued.
This year, alas, hail devastated the Halls’ crop, but the other main local source of Blenheims, Mike Cirone, forecasts a fine harvest starting next week. Cirone, 41, looks and sounds more like a movie star than a farmer, but he’s passionate about his unique vocation, restoring the small, derelict orchards common in the canyons near San Luis Obispo and selling their produce at farmers markets.
To observe his most recent harvest, I drove up the winding, rutted dirt roads of Castillo Canyon to a site, rimmed by wild hills, that Cirone calls “the fruit bowl.”
“We’re on the verge of a major fruit storm,” he said, pointing to his trees, their limbs carefully propped up with wooden stakes. He wandered over to a favorite--he loves his trees like children--savored a blushing Blenheim and grinned.
“People need good apricots,” said Cirone, who has a degree in pomology from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “It really is a shame what has happened to this fruit.”
He showed me a spot where a mountain lion had ambled across his path. Soon, three young men in shorts, T-shirts and sunglasses drove up, joshing around, and helped him pick, stashing the crates of fruit in the shade beneath the trees.
The next Wednesday, at the Santa Monica farmers market, one of them played the role of apricot tout to the hilt: “If you don’t like apricots because you’ve never had a good one, here they are. Just like grandma’s. I guarantee you, these will change your mind!” The apricot fanatics in the crowd didn’t need convincing; they knew the real thing had arrived.
Changing of the Guard
The iconic Blenheim and a similar variety, the Royal, have been grown in California since the early years of statehood. Originally the two were considered different varieties, the Blenheim being slightly larger and darker in color, but by 1920 nurseries had confused them, and they are now almost indistinguishable. Their intense flavor makes them ideal for drying.
Before World War II, when three-quarters of California’s crop went to drying, the Blenheim-Royal accounted for 80% of production. In recent decades, however, imports of cheap Turkish dried apricots (which are merely sweet, with none of the Blenheim’s perfumed tang) have devastated the drying industry, which is down to one-twentieth of what it used to be.
Last June I witnessed the last stand of the Derby Royal, a sub-variety once widely grown around Winters, west of Sacramento. Shipping of California apricots started here in 1851 at the Wolfskill farm, and the district was long famous for its early-season high-quality fruit. But when I visited Joe Martinez, a stoic farmer whose family had grown Derbys for 50 years, he was picking his last crop before calling in the bulldozers.
“A lot of us saw the writing on the wall when Sunsweet, our own grower co-op, started shipping Turkish ‘cots,” he said wearily, feeding half a Derby to his dog, Truckee. “Only masochists grow apricots today around here. It’s sad, but in the words of Roberto Duran, ‘No mas!’ ”
Beyond the Blenheim
Recently, just to get a rise out of me, my friend Todd Kennedy, a noted fruit connoisseur, joked, “The Blenheim is a piece of crap. There’s much more interesting stuff out there.”
He was overstating the case, but he had a point. For example, two years ago, in an orchard in Dinuba, I was astounded to find ‘cots with red skin and flesh: blood apricots! They had a most unusual cherry-berry flavor but, because the trees bore only a few fruits a year, the farmer (Truman Kennedy, unrelated to Todd) grafted most of them over to a more productive variety. Last week, he presented me with six fruits, his entire crop.
Another rarity I’ve tasted, the black-skinned apricot, is actually a cross of apricot and cherry plum that has been around for centuries. Its reddish flesh is sweet but not rich, with an odd bitterness reminiscent of Damson plum.
It’s white apricots, however, that get me really excited. Common in Asia and parts of the Mediterranean, they’re rare in California, but several fruit breeders are working to come up with varieties that will produce here.
Ross Sanborn, a retired farm advisor in Brentwood, between San Francisco and Stockton, has spent 45 years obsessively perfecting his “Angelcots,” bred from seeds a cousin brought back from Iran. “I’m a renegade,” he warned me on the phone. “I mess around with some pretty wild stuff.”
But he proved most genial as we toured his experimental orchard on a golf cart. I marveled at a pale yellow lemon-shaped apricot, with flesh like that of a white peach and a sugary vanilla-melon flavor. Sanborn brought out his refractometer, an instrument for measuring sweetness, and squeezed some juice into it. “Twenty-four Brix!” he exclaimed: sweeter than the sweetest Blenheim.
Another fruit looked almost like a fresh almond and tasted a bit like one too. In fact, unlike regular apricots, most white apricots have edible kernels.
Sanborn has planted a small producing orchard and sells his Angelcots through a few Bay Area groceries and farmers markets. Some of the tastiest selections, for reasons that remain mysterious, have proved ornery about bearing regular crops. Like an alchemist, Sanborn ceaselessly searches for hybrids with the perfect balance of productivity, size, firmness and flavor.
Meanwhile, two leading professional fruit breeders, Floyd Zaiger of Modesto and Craig Ledbetter of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Fresno, estimate that they may release commercial white apricots in five to 10 years.
The ideal for breeders is an apricot that would bear and ship like the Patterson and taste like the Blenheim. Over recent decades, claims of better-flavored apricots adapted to the Central Valley have amounted to only modest improvements. Judging by samples received last week, Ledbetter’s Robada, an apricot with an intense red blush and deep-orange flesh introduced in 1997, may be the best yet, but only time will prove its quality.
It was at Ledbetter’s test plot in Fresno, some five years ago, that I first tasted fresh Hunza apricots, tan-orange fruits explosive with flavor, though typically very small. Ledbetter has measured them up to 32 Brix, but he said they required cold winters like those in their Himalayan homeland to set good crops and so could not be grown commercially in California unless they were crossed with conventional varieties, a long-term project.
After that visit, I searched everywhere for more fresh Hunzas but could find only imported dried specimens. So last summer I was astonished to learn of a substantial orchard of Hunzas in Valley Center, northeast of San Diego--not the spot one would envision for high-chill fruits. The address, too, piqued my interest: Hunza Hill Terrace.
Through many inquiries, I pieced together the story: The trees were planted in 1976 by Jay Hoffman, a doctor enthralled with the remote Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan, where the inhabitants subsist largely on apricots and supposedly live to well past 100 years of age. Obsessed with apricots (a kindred soul!), he planted his own orchard of Hunzas in a quixotic attempt to obtain a supply to enjoy at home.
Hoffman died in 1986, at age 78, but the landowners who followed kept some of his trees. A month ago, I stopped by the orchard, but, to my dismay, not one young fruit was visible. I had to rely on the memories of Hoffman’s granddaughter, Deborah, who lives a few blocks away.
“The Hunzas hardly ever bore a crop,” she said, “but when they did, the fruits were darker, meatier and sweeter than regular apricots, and three times larger. They looked like peaches.”
Moorparks in Moorpark
I have reserved for last the story of my most transcendent apricot experience.
Connoisseurs have long considered the standard of excellence among apricots to be the Moorpark, a large, juicy, extraordinarily rich-flavored variety that originated in England some time before 1760.
At its best, it surpasses the Blenheim, but it has produced poor crops in California except in the Santa Clara Valley. Even there it frustrated farmers by ripening unevenly (having “green shoulders”) and cracking at the stem end (“cat scratches”). Only a very few scattered trees remain.
For years I’ve craved and searched for Moorparks, but when I’ve found them, too often they’ve proved disappointing; I suspect that some were actually lesser varieties, Wenatchee Moorparks or Early Moorparks. If the city of Moorpark was named after an apricot, it was probably the Early Moorpark, because the classic variety almost never bears fruit there.
Jakob Dakessian, however, didn’t know that, so about 15 years ago he planted a dozen Moorparks on his citrus and avocado ranch in Moorpark. I visited him in mid-August last year on another matter and almost laughed out loud when he showed me his stand of tall, lush green Moorparks . . . with no more than one apricot per tree. It was dusk, the apricots dangled just out of reach, and I almost gave up. With a final leap, I knocked one off, gave one half to Dakessian and tasted the other.
“Oh my God!” we blurted out simultaneously. It was the greatest apricot I’d ever tasted, with a flavor like apricot jam.
Just last week, Dakessian called me to say that this year he’s got his best Moorpark crop ever, a few hundred on each tree.
Jake, I’ll be there!