Apricots picked nearby a few days ago flavor some of the dishes at Steve Ceron’s two restaurants off Interstate 5.
That’s not all the chef gets from the trees that yield one of the West Side’s signature crops. He uses apricot wood from torn-out orchards to smoke pork, beef and other meats.
Ceron’s first eatery, Damasco Fine Foods & Spirits, opened in 2009 and is named for the Portuguese word for “apricot.” He followed in 2013 with Apricot Wood California BBQ, right next to the walk-in smoker where meat sits at 220 degrees for up to 12 hours.
“It’s one of the best woods you can smoke with,” Ceron said at the barbecue joint last week. “It’s slow-burning, with a sweetness to it, but not overly smoky.”
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The restaurants do tantalizing twists on a crop that can use the help. The Patterson area remains the nation top producer of apricots by far, but the industry is much reduced from its heyday. Califonia growers harvested about 45,000 tons last year, down from the peak of 324,000 in 1944.
The industry faces high labor costs because the fruit is still picked by hand. Some of it enters the fresh market during the brief season, May to early July. Some is frozen or dried. Much of it goes to canneries, mainly in Modesto and Lodi, that also do peaches and pears.
Apricot Producers of California, based in Turlock, seeks to boost demand by noting that the canning seals in nutrients. It also offers recipes for the fruit in its various forms.
Bill Ferreira, the group’s president, said he likes what Ceron is doing to promote the crop.
“He gives our fruit a wide exposure to people traveling along I-5,” Ferreira said by email. “The food at both restaurants is great. Steve is an excellent chef.”
Ceron has worked in restaurants for about 20 years, including stints in Las Vegas and Portland. He has roots in Argentina and its barbecue tradition. His wife, Deana, is Portuguese.
The Patterson restaurants are just north of Sperry Road and employ a total of 25 people. They offer a wide selection of beef, pork, chicken, sandwiches, pasta and more. Damasco bills itself on its web site as “California cuisine with a touch of Mediterranean influence.” Apricot Wood promises “true low and slow BBQ.”
Ceron had used oak and almond in his smoker, but he now has a three-year supply of apricot because of an orchard removal. The acreage has dropped overall for the industry, but some growers are planting new apricot trees in the belief that at least some demand will continue.
Ceron’s smoker takes as little as 20 minutes for salmon or as long as 12 hours for brisket and pork butt. He uses it also for chicken, sausage, tri-tip, pork chops, prime rib, lamb shoulder and whole pigs.
Vicki Diyal of Modesto lunched that day last week on chicken wings from the smoker.
“The flavor of the food is amazing,” she said . “I like the spicy chicken. It has a smoke flavor.”
The fruit itself goes into just a few dishes, but they are impressive. Last week, Ceron made bruschetta with roasted apricot, tomato, goat cheese and a balsamic reduction. His pork chop wore an apricot-sriracha glaze. The grilled chicken came with an apricot-pineapple salsa and an apricot wine reduction.
So what will Ceron do as apricot season nears an end? He will make preserves that he can pull off the shelf all year.
John Holland: 209-578-2385