MODESTO -- Some of the fruits of summer have swelled on the trees, only to shrink after harvest into wrinkled little blobs. Which is just right for fans of dried fruit, a small but potently flavored part of the Northern San Joaquin Valley's bounty.
Peaches, apricots, apples, pears and plenty of other fruit can get that extra pop if left out to dry.
"It almost tastes like candy because all of those sugars are concentrated," said Terri Spezzano, a nutrition adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus and Merced counties.
She said dried fruit, whether produced in the sun or a dehydrator, can help people meet new federal nutrition standards. The sugar content is high, but it is a natural sugar that can be part of a balanced diet, she said.
The north valley, with its cloudless days well into September, is ideal for sun drying.
Last week at Bella Viva Orchards, east of Hughson, owner Victor Martino processed the last of this year's peaches and prepared for the first of the pears.
"It tastes really good and it's really nutritious," he said during a tour of the dry yard, which handles fruit from his orchards and other growers.
The wooden trays held peaches that had been sliced in half and pitted, with the skins facing down. They would dry in the sun for three to four days, then continue to dry outside, but shielded from the sun, for a few more days.
The low moisture content discourages the growth of pathogens, Martino said. The trays stand about a foot off the ground and are reached by a dirt road that is sprayed to keep down dust.
An ancient method
Drying dates back a few millennia in the Middle East, where people found that grapes, figs and other fruits gained flavor and shelf life if left to shrivel somewhat.
The north valley had a notable dried-fruit industry in the middle of the 20th century. The 1949 crop report for Stanislaus County listed 8,182 tons of raisins, 4,575 tons of dried peaches and 1,000 tons of dried apricots.
Drying used to be a common sideline to growing fruit for canneries or the fresh market, said Joe Traina, a grower and co-owner of The Fruit Yard restaurant and produce market east of Modesto.
"Everybody had a little dry yard if they raised fruit," said Traina, who entered the business later. "It was like a backyard thing. Nobody wasted fruit."
Today's top dried fruit by volume, by far, is raisins, grown mostly in and near Fresno County. It also is the fig capital.
The Sacramento Valley produces most of the prunes, marketed as "dried plums" ever since the feds OK'd the change several years back.
Stanislaus County leads the nation in apricot production, most of it around Patterson, but farmers face competition from cheap dried imports.
Raisins grow in a few spots in the north valley. Four K Farms near Ripon, for example, offered some at the Modesto Certified Farmers Market last week.
Many types available
Dried fruit finds its way into gift baskets, trail mix, cereal, baked goods and a host of other products.
Bella Viva sells its fruit online, at a downtown Hughson store and at two farmers markets in San Francisco.
The choices range from peaches from its farm to goji berries from Tibet. The Web site www.bellaviva.com also lists apples, apricots, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, currants, cherries, citrus, nectarines, tropical fruit and others.
Martino said dried fruit could boom in the same way as wine and cheese, as people savor the many types.
"It's really about enhancing the human experience," he said. "We're able to offer people these choices in food."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.
A 1.5-ounce serving of dried apricots provides 10 percent of the recommended daily amounts of fiber and vitamin A.
That amount of prunes provides 11 percent of the fiber and 8 percent of the vitamin A.
That amount of raisins provides 9 percent of the fiber.
In general, half a cup of dried fruit equals a cup of fresh fruit under federal nutrition standards, which recommend 1 to 2 cups of fresh fruit a day, depending on age and gender.
Some dried fruit is treated with sulfur to prevent discoloring. It is harmless for most people but can induce asthma in sensitive people.
DRIED FRUIT CONSUMPTION
U.S. pounds per capita, 2010*
*weight before drying
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration