The time to worry about apricots is in February. Every farmer in the central valley dreads the series of warm days and moderate nights that awaken their trees from their winter dormancy. Being the first to put out a bloom anyway, the apricot is particularly susceptible to early signs of spring and as the delicate white flowers emerge the apricot farmer knows his crop is in trouble. Joining the late variety citrus grower, the apricot farmer must now endure the last of the winter's weather - with a fragile blossom's survival deciding the fate of the season.
Such was the case in the early spring of 2009. While we were celebrating Valentine's Day, the first chapter of summer was being written. More than a week of moderate springtime weather followed heavy rain and nighttime temperatures below freezing took more than 70% of the apricot crop for the season before a single leaf was on the tree - the later springtime thinning of the crop was done before the fruit had even set courtesy of Mother Nature. Growers and shippers (and apricot fans like me) endured the weather, assessed the damage and prepared for what is sure to be a short, early season.
Further into the spring, the same drama will play out in the Pacific Northwest as spring comes to the growing areas in central/eastern Washington, another large producer of apricots. There is also east coast production but the reason we see few regional or local apricot growers can be summed up by how often a crop is lost to weather.
Apricots and cherries make up the earliest (and riskiest) harvest offerings of the summer. The immensely popular cherry generally takes center stage at the same time, eclipsing apricots from both a farm production and customer demand standpoint, but it is the uncertainty of the crop and the contribution apricots have made to other types of fruit that hold a special place for them with me every year.
Like most classes of stone fruit (fruit with a hard stone-like seed in the center), apricots have several varieties that make up their short season. Some of the more common varieties are the Patterson, Castle bright, and the Poppy cot but there are literally dozens of old and new varieties that appear between late April and July. Among these is the Royal Blenheim, a very old canning variety that when tree ripened, is widely considered the best variety to eat out of hand. What makes it good also makes it a treacherous variety for retailers as the delicate texture of the Blenheim makes them susceptible to bruising.
Red Velvet Plumcots- Central Valley California
Experiments involving the grafting of trees on plum rootstock (or vice versa) have given apricots a shared parentage in a whole new class of fruit varieties. Each of the three broad classes has interesting and sometimes unique properties:
Aprium- Central Valley California
- Aprium: early cross that is a 75-25 blend of apricot and plum. Has the look and taste of an apricot but the texture of a plum.
- Plumcots: a 50/50 blend, the Plumcot can have characteristics associated with both classes of fruit. Can be low producing so availability is sporadic.
- Pluot: largest class by far with more than 50 varieties produced in California alone. This 25-75 blend of Apricot and plum has produced some remarkably successful varieties that produce throughout the summer.
Selecting apricots is the same as with most types of stone fruit: it best to buy them firm and finish ripening at home. Most apricots have a reddish blush but the important color is the yellow/orange that dominates the surface of the fruit. There can be a little green on the stem side but it is best to select fruit that is uniformly yellow/orange. It is important to note that many varieties of apricot ripen from the inside out, softening around the stone in the center of the fruit outwards. You should eat apricots slightly firm for this reason. There are also many uses for apricots in cooking: as part of a sauce for pork or fish, blended into smoothies or grilled and served warm over ice cream. One of my favorites is a simple pairing with another piece of fruit that is excellent at the same time - apricots and blackberries with a soft cheese to hold them together is one of my early summer snacks.
James' Favorite Early Summer Snack
One positive part of a season with a false spring is that smaller crops tend to size larger and ripen more evenly. Also, with the smaller fruit load, the tree is under less stress (particularly in drought years). Being a fan of apricots has also taught me to be an optimist - every year I look at the bright side of whatever weather situation arises and enjoy what time we have with the first great fruit of summer.
Dream Cots- Central Valley California
Many thanks to Adam Morrison for contributing to this post.