Stone fruits

Apricots and pluots need TLC

Apricots are never the pits—unless they’ve been picked too early by profit-zealous growers.

Apricots are never the pits—unless they’ve been picked too early by profit-zealous growers.

Keep your hands off those apricots until you know what you’re buying, because, among many inferior varieties, the rare Royal Blenheims are now among us. This cultivar, say farmers of the fruit, is the best apricot that grows.

“Taste a ripe Blenheim and you’ll never buy another apricot again,” says Ed George, a Winters farmer who sells his late-June Blenheim crop at the Davis Farmers Market on Saturdays.

And Jeff Main at Good Humus Produce in Capay agrees. “If you eat a perfect, tree-ripened Blenheim, then there is only one other apricot in the world that can match it in taste,” he says.

This other one is an obscure and nameless Himalayan cultivar almost entirely unavailable commercially, which leaves the Royal Blenheim as king on the local front. The variety arrived in America from Europe in the 1860s, when it went by two names: the Royal from France and the Blenheim from England. As it turns out, the two were the same fruit, so the names merged into one.

The saga of the Royal Blenheim apricot is a classic example of the counterintuitive mechanics of commercial agriculture. Although the Royal Blenheim is the tastiest apricot available by all accounts, it was abandoned intentionally for less-delicious breeds.

Decades ago, the Blenheim was a well-known fruit, appreciated and produced en masse. Then, midway through last century, market dynamics fueled its downfall. Farmers knew they could receive big money for providing the first apricots of the season. Blenheims ripen late, and so innovative growers introduced early ripening varieties, large apricots with stunning gold skins. They were tasteless and watery, but they caught consumers’ eyes.

Such fruits proved as disappointing as they were beautiful. Consumers remembered these occasions, and by the time the mid-June Blenheim crop arrived shoppers had had enough of apricots. This occurred—and still does occur—every year.

“The marketing of early-ripening, brightly colored apricots killed the Royal Blenheim,” says Main, whose fruit also sells at the Saturday Davis market and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.

Wait for the Blenheim, however, and you may still declare it king.

After the Royal Blenheims come and go during their two-week season, pluots will take their place in markets. This plum-apricot hybrid has grown in popularity since 15 years ago, when Steve Smit, a stone-fruit farmer east of Lodi, first planted his orchard. Some large producers have tried to sell pluots, Smit says, but the fruits are picked hard and may taste bland or sour.

“But I let mine hang for weeks until they’re gooey and amazing,” says Smit, who grows his fruit on Mt. Mariah Farm and drives it, carefully, to the Davis Farmers Market. There, he will sell Flavor Kings, Flavor Supremes, Dapple Dandies, Flavor Grenades and several other pluot varieties all summer.

The dark purple Flavorosa has flesh like syrup at its best, but its season has mostly passed. The reddish Flavor King is available now and often is regarded as the best pluot—aromatic, sweet as a grape, and spicy.

Unfortunately, mainstream agriculture and many stone fruits don’t mix. Quantity and superficial quality—meaning color and size—drive the industry.

“It’s just a volume deal,” says Smit, and flavor hardly matters. Large-scale growers who have abandoned the Royal Blenheim apricot reaffirm such market madness. The pluot lends further testimony to the industry’s inability to produce true quality, and Smit promises that the pluot will never go mainstream.

“It’s literally impossible to pick them ripe and still ship them,” he says. “There’s no way. It’s not going to happen, ever.”