Spring weather can really turn the produce business on its head, and the 2012 season is shaping up to be an interesting one. All over the country, what started out as a mild (even balmy) end to winter turned into a wild and crazy spring: heavy rain and hail out west, thunderstorms and tornados in the south and the heartland, and even a late Nor’easter that blew through New England.
The spring growing season is unpredictable and while growers, shippers and retailers of fresh produce all know this, it’s still a revelation when May rolls around and the first fruits of summer come off the trees, vines, bushes and plants. One of the most anticipated of the early summer arrivals is cherries. The first harvest date in California is always a moving target, and this year we are running several weeks behind the norm so May supplies are very tight. High export demand for fruit also puts pressure on available supplies and will likely keep prices higher than usual.
These conditions should ease toward the end of May and certainly into June as harvest volumes build and the Pacific Northwest cherry season starts.
Another early domestic fruit, that is equally exciting but arrives with far less fanfare, is the apricot. Like cherries, apricots are not a crop for the faint of heart; the bloom stage can come very early in the year when the weather is at its most unpredictable. Also, their size makes them difficult to pick, sort and pack; and many varieties are also very susceptible to bruising.
But when the stars align and the myriad of crop dangers avoided, there are few things better than a fresh apricot. And so far this year looks very promising. Most apricots sold in grocery stores are from California’s Central Valley region and later in the summer they come in from Washington State. However there are small, brief pockets of production on the East Coast as well. Over the course of the season we’ll see dozens of apricot varieties.
Some of the more common early varieties are Apache and Monster Cot, followed later by Patterson and Castle Bright. Among my later favorites is the Royal Blenheim, a very old canning variety that when tree-ripened, is widely considered the best apricot. There are also some exciting new varieties; among them the Red and Black Velvet and a wonderfully sweet but extremely delicate white apricot.
Selecting apricots is the same as with most types of stone fruit — it’s best to buy them firm and finish ripening them at home. Most apricots have a reddish blush, but the important color is the yellowish orange that dominates the surface of the fruit. There can be a little green on the stem side but it’s best to select fruit that is uniformly yelloworange. It is also important to note that many varieties of apricot ripen from the inside out, which is why you should eat apricots when they’re still slightly firm.
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 an excellent in-season fruit .
Apricots and blackberries with a soft cheese to hold them together is one of my favorite early summer snacks. I have a Blenheim tree in my back yard at home; a budding adolescent I planted last year that has exactly six pieces of fruit this season.
My son Aidan and I have studiously tracked their growth all spring from our nearby hammock; removing the occasional snail and waiting for the fruit to size and color. Every time it rains or the wind picks up I worry about my little tree and the safety of its modest crop. This reminds me of the growers who have the same worries on a much larger scale. It takes a lot of effort to bring any fruit to market, but the first fruits of summer are particularly special.
For those of us who grow and trade in fresh produce they remind us of the power and unpredictability of Mother Nature. For the rest of us they are a sweet preview of the incredible abundance of summer.
What's your favorite early summer fruit?