The Sweetest Thing: Apricots

Searching for lost youth and the world’s most luscious apricots
By Adam Leith Gollner, from Lucky Peach
March/April 2012

“Compared to the juiceless cottonwads back home, this was a dripping, pulsating life form. It seemed to have been drenched in wild honey, butterscotch, and first kisses.”
BILL PUSZTAI/WWW.BILLPUSZTAI.COM


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In 1990, when communism ended in Hungary, my family moved from Montreal to Budapest. Our home overlooked a leafy schoolyard. All the neighborhood kids hung out there, including a pretty girl who lived across the grounds. She was in eighth grade, one year below me. By the end of the spring we were hooking up. We’d meet after dark, behind her apartment complex, and sneak into the boiler room, a tangled nest of steam valves, connector pipes, and looming machinery.

Walking hurriedly to our spot one June night, I jumped the school fence and found myself immersed in fragrance. I peered up. Several dozen golden apricots were dangling from the branches of a solitary tree. I’d encountered apricots before and was pretty sure they were supposed to be perfume-free. These smelled crazy, like hybrid cardamom-vanilla-jasmine flowers in full, sticky bloom.

Plucking one, I was struck by the smoothness of the skin. Instead of the usual velvety feel, this one had the glossy sheen of a nectarine or a cherry. I took a tentative bite. The flesh was astonishingly juicy—syrupy nectar pooled to the surface and ran down my arm. Compared to the juiceless cottonwads back home, this was a dripping, pulsating life form. It seemed to have been drenched in wild honey, butterscotch, and first kisses.

Starting the following summer, when we moved back to Montreal, I’d buy apricots whenever I saw them, always hoping to relive the experience. They never tasted remotely similar. Often, they were inedible—mealy and coin flavored. Still, I sampled them everywhere, from the Niagara fruit belt to the orchards of California. At a certain point, resigning myself to the once-in-a-lifetimeness of that Budapest summer, I gave up on apricots.

 

Unless a fruit has somehow become entwined with their adolescent delectations, most people don’t really care about what they might be missing. They’re content with supermarket strawberries, dry oranges, and the occasional farm-fresh melon. But anyone fortunate enough to have come across a premium cultivar at the height of its ripeness laments the quality of mass-produced fruits.

So I steered clear of apricots, certain that they wouldn’t live up to my impossible-to-meet expectations. But when the editors of Lucky Peach approached me with the idea of uncovering sweet spots among the world’s flora, I decided to pick up the search again.

The first step in locating the world’s best apricots is pinpointing their center of origin. If it hasn’t been paved over, a fruit’s evolutionary birthplace usually still holds the gene pool where the wildest variation—and the most delicious exemplars—can be found.

Wild apricots proliferate all over Asia and the Middle East, with a few noteworthy hubs of diversity: central China; Iran; and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. The Republic of Tajikistan lies north of Afghanistan and borders western China. With only four thousand tourists a year, it’s one of the planet’s least-visited countries.

“There are many varieties of apricots in Tajikistan that are not known to Western taste buds,” explained Myron Stoltzfus, an American who imports dried Tajik apricots through his company Enduring Sun. If I wanted to visit Tajikistan, he recommended I speak with his partner Dwayne Hershey, who lives there to oversee the apricot-exporting process.

“The fresh apricots here are so juicy and high in sugar it’s like you’re eating candy fruits,” Hershey gushed when we talked. He spoke especially highly of a variety called the Kandak. “Locals believe it has healing powers,” he said. “Doctors prescribe it as a natural medicine.”

There were other trophies, too: the Golden and the Shiny. “The Golden has an incredible appearance,” Hershey said. “It looks like it’s made of gold. It’s a very bright yellow, and it almost has a transparent quality to it. It’s glabrous, meaning the skin is smooth and glossy rather than velvety.”

Glabrous! There was a word for the Hungarian apricots of my youth.

The term glabrous itself means “free of down or hair”; that fuzzy skin on normal apricots is technically called pubescence, a strangely appropriate coincidence given the nature of my inquiry.

Botanists distinguish between different types of pubescence with unsettling meticulousness, deploying terminology like velutinous (velvety haired), setose (bristly, with very hard, erect hairs), and lanate (covered in woolly hairs). Perhaps a certain degree of horticultural perviness is unavoidable; after all, fruits are what happen after flowers have sex.

Hershey went on. “The exterior of the Shiny actually shines, if you can imagine that. It’s a deeper orange than the Golden, but when you see them, they both seem to glisten.”

As tantalizing as those glowing, glabrous apricots sounded, finding them in their element wasn’t a sure thing. Hershey couldn’t say exactly when they’d be in season. He wasn’t even sure where the trees grew; he’d only seen the fruit in the marketplace. Sensing my uncertainty, he mentioned that there might be other people with more experience hunting for fresh apricots in Central Asia. “Have you spoken with John Driver yet?” he asked.

Driver is an American fruit breeder whose family has been farming in Northern California for generations. He spent 15 years traveling through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang in search of high-flavored apricots.

Most of Tajikistan’s commercial orchards were planted long ago, Driver told me.

“What’s it like to travel over there?” I asked.

“The hotels are fleabags,” he said. “And the Fergana Valley is huge. To really understand it, you’d have to jump around from Jalalabad to Samarkand to Andijan. You would have a real language problem, too, so you’d need to hire guides.”

Then Driver said something that made everything come into focus: “Why don’t you just come out to California? In terms of a spectrum of diversity, you’ll see way more apricots on my farm than you would visiting Central Asia for a week.”

“Do you have any glabrous apricots?” I asked, wavering.

“As a matter of fact, the glabrous ones are the most intensely flavored apricots I grow,” he said.

California’s apricot season would be in full stride in mid-June. I booked a flight to SFO.

 

As the date of my departure neared, I grew more and more excited. Stone fruit expert David Karp had written rave reports about Driver’s “CandyCots” in the New York Times. Food bloggers were calling them the best apricots they’d ever tasted. I wondered: Would they compare to the apricots I’d had as a teenager in Eastern Europe? The Freudian notion that one’s desire is always in excess of the object’s capacity to satisfy it kept rattling around in the back of my thoughts.

But Freud never visited John Driver’s farm at the pinnacle of apricot season. On the morning of June 28, I pulled into the driveway of his orchard in Waterford, a few hours east of San Francisco. Driver, a smiling 60-year-old man wearing sunglasses and a wide-brim sun hat, came out to greet me. He was getting ready to haul a few crates of just-picked fruits to the CandyCot warehouse, so he suggested that we talk and drive. Climbing into the cab of his pickup truck, I immediately noticed a musky fragrance. There were only a dozen apricots on the seat, but it smelled like a tropical flower shop in there.

“That aroma is something you never come across at the supermarket,” I remarked.

“I don’t even call those things they sell in the supermarket ‘apricots’ anymore,” he replied. “Commercial apricots today are just for decorating stores.

“Wait till you try these.”

Driver handed me a small, fuzzy orange apricot. It was a variety called the Anya. I bit into it and then sat there dazed for a few seconds. It went beyond sweetness, boasting extremely concentrated, jammy, spicy flavors. And the texture was so different from normal apricots’: chewably firm, yet simultaneously juicy.

“I wanted you to try that first, because this one is even sweeter,” Driver said, handing me a shiny yellow apricot.

“Glabrous!”

“Yup. This one’s the Honey.”

With a thumb on either side of its furrow, I pressed inward. It didn’t rupture, but rather split in half neatly. Syrup seeped out from the flesh like molten honey, a testament to its name.

It was even better than the Anya. I closed my eyes as the flavors resonated like a sweet bell clanging in my mouth. There was a tiny amount of bitter-almond flavor, as well as an unidentifiable savory component. Wine writers have no idea what they’re missing, I thought.

We pulled up to a small warehouse, where Driver’s partner Chris Britton and Britton’s two young sons were gently packing the fruits into foam-lined boxes.

“Early on, we made a conscious decision not to do what others do,” Driver explained. “No unripe picking, no packing lines, no running ’em across tables. Our fruits are picked by hand and packed by hand. It’s the only way it can work.”

Driver then took me over to the main CandyCot orchard, where rows of trees were covered in bright orange and yellow fruits. It had been challenging to get the Asian fruits to adapt to California, but once they did, Driver realized he had something special.

Sugar levels are measured in Brix units, using a device called a refractometer. Supermarket apricots, Driver said, usually register between 11 and 15 Brix; his Central Asian apricots were logging anywhere from 26 to 32. But the fruits weren’t just outrageously sweet—they also had a muscular acidity and a complex flavor.

To decide which ones consumers would like best, he started doing taste tests at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. “At the beginning, I thought people would prefer the milder varieties, or the ones that were exclusively sweet,” Driver said. “But they wanted the most intense ones we had.”

Based on the taste tests, Driver settled on five varieties to be grown as CandyCots. Alongside the Anya and the Honey, there is also the Yuliya, the Mischa, and the Eleni. After I’d sampled a bunch of canonical CandyCots, Driver led me to his selection block, where I could see a greater range of Central Asian varieties.

“This is diversity,” he said, pointing at all the different trees in his oasis. Some of the fruits were large and pink; others were small and green. There were pure white fruits, and others that were cream colored with green shoulders. Some of them actually had green flesh, even at ripeness.

Many of the different fruits looked banged up, either split open or covered in beige scuff marks, which Driver said were sugar spots.

“These fruits have built-in sweetness indicators,” he explained, “but we have to educate consumers that patching like that is the only way to get sky-high sugar levels. They may not look perfect, but they taste incredible.” We were surrounded by the sweetest apricots I’d ever seen or tasted, their literal sweet spots announcing the fact that this grove, on this particular day, was the global sweet spot for apricots.

I spent the next hour giddily tasting apricot after apricot—orange, green, yellow, white. Aware that I’d never again encounter apricots this good, I was savoring the bounty while it lasted. Maybe Tajikistan would’ve yielded treasures, but it was hard to imagine anything better than this ephemeral moment.

Slightly dizzy from all the sweetness, I arrived at a branch covered in radiant, glabrous fruit. Capsules of sunlight. Bursts of gold on an emerald sea. Arboreal jewelry. The act of biting into one set off a haunting concatenation of impressions. The flavor wasn’t just transporting; it was disturbingly alive, almost deadly. It slayed me. A tunnel opened up. In the tree’s shade, years disappeared. And for a moment, I tasted the memory of being a 15-year-old in love.

Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Obsession, Commerce and Adventure. Excerpted from Lucky Peach (Issue Two), a quarterly journal of food and writing created, in part, by Momofuku chef David Chang and published by McSweeney’s. 


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Post a comment below.

 

Roy L Payne
3/19/2012 3:47:28 AM
When I was 16yo, in the late sixties, my parents bought a little 5acre ranchette in the hills above Los Altos, CA. It was a sub-division of a large apricot farm that the farmer had retired and split his land to sell to the new families pouring into the silicon valley. The new Mac-Mansions being built were a far cry from the little farm-hands house my parents and I moved into. What was unique, however, is that the Mac-Mansion owners didn't cut many of the surrounding apricot trees down trying to embrace some sense of rural life, nor did they care about the fruit that abound on the trees, leaving us to pick and process all the apricots we wanted...for free! Those were halcyon days of apricot heaven where every meal included apricot something or other. Chicken or pork with apricot sauce, apricot jellies, apricot pies and baked scones, apricot ice cream, any and everything apricot. I kept bees and had apricot honey that was the absolute paramount. Well, those days are gone. Our little house was razed for another Mac-Mansion and I live in the midst of Palo Alto, another one time farm area. The point is, under the pavement of silicon valley is the most precious soils once home to apricots, prunes, peaches and plums of world class rating. Now, we give you your computer designs and venture capital. But my memories will last until the day I die. Thanks for your story.








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