California's spring gold rush has just begun.
Pushed along by hot April weather, the first apricots of the season arrived in markets a little early about a week ahead of normal.
"Availability will be very limited right now," said Bill Ferriera, president of the Turlock-based Apricot Producers of California. "They're picking the very early ones in Kern County. Only the earliest varieties will be in the stores."
These early-bird apricots tend to be tart, he added. "They have a higher acid content. They'll need to sit on the counter or in a paper bag for a day or two to soften them up."
The main harvest will arrive from Stanislaus County right before Memorial Day. Supply should stay strong throughout June.
That's an accomplishment, considering the delicate nature of this crop and the weird weather all spring.
"We should be OK," said Ferriera, noting the unpredictable weather. "Some places are setting records for heat. But 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 (around) 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. 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. Tart-tasting Poppy ranks as the earliest variety, now in stores and farmers markets.
"Patterson is far and away No. 1 because it produces so well and is acceptable for all uses," Ferriera explained. "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 late-ripening Blenheims (and its close cousin, Royal) extremely popular at farmers markets. Look for them in early June.
"Once they're ripe, Blenheims do not look very pretty," Ferriera said. "But they are delicious. The only place where you can get them is farmers markets.
"Or plant your own tree," he added. "Then, pick it and eat it right there."
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.
Like other bright orange fruit and vegetables, apricots are packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals believed to help fight cancer and heart disease. Zea-xanthin, a carotenoid contained in apricots, helps keep aging eyes healthy.
Selection: Apricots bruise easily and do not travel well. Always treat them very gently; don't drop them into a bag or bucket. 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 them soften.
If very hard, place them in a brown paper bag, punched with a few holes, for a day or two. Keep at room temperature out of direct sunlight. Check at least twice a day; they ripen very fast! Once soft, they can be stored in the refrigerator crisper bin for up to a week.
Freezing: Cut fruit into halves, discard pits and dip halves into ascorbic acid solution (or 1 cup water with 1/4 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'll keep three months. Fruit also can be packed in sugar or light syrup and frozen for up to one year.
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 (1/4 cup juice to every cup water) for five minutes to prevent oxidation. Drain. Then, dry in an oven or dehydrator.
Oven method: 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 dry up to 24 hours, testing occasionally for dryness. Dried apricots should be pliable; if brittle, hard or crisp, they're too dry.
Dehydrator method: This method is more efficient. Arrange the halves on racks. In a dehydrator set at 135 degrees, they'll need 12 to 16 hours drying time, depending on size.
Seal dried apricots in plastic bags and store in a cool, dark place (up to one month at room temperature) or freeze (up to six months).
If dried apricots get too dry, rehydrate them. Place in a single layer in a microwave-safe dish. Sprinkle with water. Cover and microwave on medium for 1 to 2 minutes.
Preparation: Apricots are at their best fresh, fully ripe off the tree. But they can be cooked many ways while retaining most of their nutrients.
Apricots can be substituted for peaches in most recipes. Besides desserts and sweets, apricots add wonderful flavor to savory dishes. They complement lamb, pork, ham and poultry. Among typical spices used with apricots are ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and curry.
Ancient fruit: A close relative of plums and peaches, apricots date back millenniums. Native to China, apricots became a favorite of ancient Greeks and Romans after they were introduced by traders. Apricot pulp was the original "nectar of the gods." According to Greek lore, the fruit was nicknamed "golden eggs from the sun." "Apricot" comes from the Latin words for "precious" and "early ripening."
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Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.