Stanislaus County's spring gold rush has begun, and supply will remain strong throughout June.
That's an accomplishment, considering the delicate nature of apricots and the weird weather all spring.
"We should be OK," said Bill Ferriera, president of the Turlock-based Apricot Producers of California. "we had no real adverse weather this spring, no hail or frost damage. The fruit should be fine."
Recent heavy winds knocked down many apricots, he said. "But some always fall; it's hard to tell what was wind and what was normal.
"Wind also can cause scarring," Ferriera continued. "That's cosmetic and a bigger problem for fresh market (apricots); the majority of the crop will be processed (canned, dried or frozen)."
That scarring is caused by leaves rubbing against the fruit's thin skin.
"It mostly happens on the outside rows of orchards, where they get the most wind," he explained. "The inner rows are more protected."
California is the apricot state, producing about 98 percent of the nation's crop. But California apricots have been heavily affected by imports.
The 2013 harvest should total about 57,000 tons, same as last year, according to Ferriera.
"But that's less than half of what we picked (nearly) 10 years ago," Ferriera said. "In 1994, we picked 132,000 tons, with many more left in the orchards."
In recent years, Chinese apricots swamped the baby food market, and Turkish apricots took over the dried market.
"Turkey exports very, very cheap dried apricots," Ferriera said. "It really decimated our dried market; we only have two or three (California dryers) left. But interest in domestically dried apricots is coming back.
"California dried apricots are totally different than Turkish," he added. "They have a bright orange color and are halved. Turkish apricots are dried whole and have a completely different taste."
Apricots must be hand-picked, and trees have a relatively short life span. They produce for only 20 to 25 years.
"They're so labor-intensive, a lot of growers have pulled out their apricots and replaced them with almonds or walnuts," said Ferriera, noting that fewer than 100 apricot growers remain in the state.
One variety, Patterson, accounts for 85 percent of the crop.
"Patterson is far and away No. 1 because it produces so well and is acceptable for all uses," Ferriera said. "Is it the best-tasting? You can't beat an old Blenheim, but it's still very good."
With a distinctive sweet-tart taste and a scent like honeysuckle, the Blenheim variety considered the queen of apricots bruises very easily, making it difficult to handle. That led to its slow demise as an orchard crop as the more durable Patterson replaced it.
But consumer demand for this old-time favorite has made the late-ripening Blenheim (and its close cousin, the Royal) popular at farmers markets. Look for them now.
"Once they're ripe, Blenheims do not look very pretty, " Ferriera said. "But they are delicious."
Apricot tart brûlee
Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus 1 hour chilling
1½ cups flour
½ cup toasted blanched almonds, ground fine
9 tablespoons sugar, divided
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons cold butter, divided
1 egg yolk
1½ teaspoons vanilla, divided
1 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream, divided
7 to 8 apricots, cut in half and pits removed
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. To make the crust, combine the flour, ground almonds, 3 tablespoons sugar and the salt in a bowl. Cut ½ cup cold butter into small pieces and work it into the dough with your fingers or a pastry cutter until the dough is crumbly and evenly combined, but not pasty.
Combine the egg yolk, ½ teaspoon vanilla and 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the egg yolk mixture. Use a fork to quickly stir until the mixture can be formed into a ball.
Gather the dough into a ball and knead several times to blend the ingredients. Form into a ball again; wrap it in plastic wrap and chill 30 minutes.
Roll the dough out on a well-floured surface to about a -inch thickness. Lift the dough into a 9-inch tart pan and gently press it into the bottom and up against the sides to the top edge of the pan; remove any excess dough. If you have any breaks in the crust, pat the broken area back together. Chill for 30 minutes.
Line the pan with foil, then fill halfway with pie weights. Bake the tart shell for 15 minutes. Remove it from the oven and lift off the foil and pie weights. Prick the bottom of the tart shell with a fork and return the crust to the oven. Bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the tart shell from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.
Arrange the apricot halves, pitted side up, in the tart shell.
Combine the remaining whipping cream, the remaining vanilla, the eggs and ¼ cup of the sugar. Gently pour this custard over and around the apricots.
Dot the tops of the apricots with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.
Bake until the custard tests done in the center, about 35 to 40 minutes. Place the tart under the broiler until the top is browned, about 30 seconds or less.
Remove the tart from the oven and cool. Serve warm or chilled.
This recipe is from the Los Angeles Times.
Per serving: 473 calories; 7 grams protein; 36 grams carbohydrates; 34 grams fat (18 saturated) 167 milligrams cholesterol; 181 milligrams sodium; 2 grams fiber.
NUTRITION: 1 cup of raw halves contains about 74 calories, mostly from natural sugars. One whole large apricot has less than 50 calories. Apricots are very high in vitamins A and C. They're also a good source of fiber and potassium.
SELECTION: Apricots bruise easily. Treat them gently. Look for apricots with full yellow to orange color and not a touch of green. The flesh should yield to gentle pressure and not feel hard. The fruit should smell ripe with a bright aroma. Avoid fruit that looks brown, bruised, soft or mushy.
STORAGE: Apricots continue to ripen after harvest (although they don't get sweeter than the day they were picked). Leave them on the kitchen counter at room temperature out of direct sunlight to let soften.
FREEZING: Cut fruit into halves, discard pits and dip halves into ascorbic acid solution (or 1 cup water with ¼ cup lemon or lime juice) to prevent discoloration. Place halves in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze. Once solid, transfer halves to airtight bags or containers to store in the freezer; they will keep three months.
DRIED: Choose fully ripe but not mushy apricots. Halve the fruit, discarding the pits. "Pop" out the apricot halves by pushing the skin-side inward; that exposes more flesh for drying. Cover the halves with water mixed with lemon or lime juice (¼ cup juice to every cup water) for five minutes to prevent oxidation. Drain. Preheat oven to 140 degrees (the lowest setting on most ovens). Arrange halves in a single layer in an ovenproof glass dish. Do not overlap; they need air to circulate for even drying. Place the apricots in the oven and leave the door open 2 to 3 inches to let moisture escape. Let them dry up to 24 hours, testing occasionally for dryness. Dried apricots should be pliable; if brittle, hard or crisp, they're too dry.