Illustration by Julia Rothman
“Shining in a sweet brightness of golden velvet” is how John Ruskin described the apricot. His words capture the sensual qualities of this luscious fruit. Within the plush skin covered with downy fuzz—the botanical word is pubescent—the flesh is rich, sweet, and tangy.
No wonder Titania instructed her fairies thus, in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, when she wished them to indulge Bottom during her elixir-induced infatuation with the ass:
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries, With purple grapes, green figs and mulberries.
With the word apricock, Shakespeare was using the spelling common in sixteenth-century England.
And Andrew Marvell in his poem “The Garden” wrote:
The nectarine and curious peach Into my hands themselves do reach.
Although he didn’t name the apricot, the nectarine and peach are first cousins, like the plum, cherry, and almond. All are drupes in the apple family, which have a similar seed enclosed within a wooden stone, flesh and skin.
No question, across the globe and through millennia, these fruits are all desirable in their appeal to the senses. The apricot, like the others, was considered an aphrodisiac in its native China and along its later path westward through Asia and the Mediterranean. The apricot has been cultivated in northern China for more than 4,000 years, but its origins are so far back in time that much is unknown. Wild apricot trees have been found in Turkestan, as it traveled on the Silk Road, brought by Arab traders, like so many other fruits and spices as well as ideas.
The ancient Greeks thought the apricot came from Armenia, because it flourished there in so many different varieties both bitter and sweet, and so its botanical name became Prunus armeniaca, “Armenian plum,” just as they thought the peach came from Persia (Prunus persica, which gives us our English word peach). The Romans were more interested in the fact that the apricot flowered early and bore fruit before the peach, so they called it praecox for its “precocious” ways. From there come many European Latinate forms such albicocca in Italian, albaricoque in Spanish, for instance, and apricock in earlier English.
The tree became popular in Europe in the 15th century and was brought to England in 1542, by John Wolf (originally Jean Le Loup), gardener to King Henry VIII. Colonists took it to North America in the 18th century, and Spanish missionaries to the West Coast, where it has thrived ever since and where most American production is today. The Middle East remains a major producer of apricots, especially Turkey, where they are naturally dried in the sun. In the modern world, Australia is a major player in the apricot industry. Varieties and processes vary from one region to another.
The apricot tree needs a temperate and stable climate, with cold winters, warm springs, and early summers, so that the blossoms can avoid frost and bear fruit. In the United States today, the commercial crop season from California and the Pacific Northwest is May through August, peaking in late May and June. The local crop in Massachusetts comes in July. Fresh apricots are notoriously hard to find tree-ripened and full-flavored, as they may be picked green and shipped long distances too early. They can remain pale yellow and rock hard, or, once ripe, quickly turn to mush.
During a Massachusetts summer, apricots from local growers like the Nicewicz Family Farm in Bolton are a better bet. This third generation farm, established in 1929, grows four varieties with names like Moon Gold and Moor Park on twenty trees. They blossom during April. Alan Nicewicz says that “in New England the bloom is so early that there is a good chance of the crop getting killed by frost.” In addition to their farm stand, their apricots are sold during July at ten different farmers markets in the greater Boston area and Worcester. They also offer peaches, plums, pears, and apples in season, as well as vegetables and flowers. Catch them when you can! They are worth the quest.
At American markets look for fresh apricots that range in color from yellow-orange blush to deep amber, depending on variety and ripeness. The texture should be plump and slightly yielding to the touch, but still firm; store them in the refrigerator. Not-quite-mature apricots will ripen a little at room temperature (faster in a bag). Use them soon.
Fresh ripe apricots are very nutritious, high in Vitamin A and potassium and iron, as well as other vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and at the same time low in calories. Fortunately apricots dry exceptionally well, and they keep nearly all of these benefits. Sulfur dioxide is often added to speed up the drying process and to preserve them, and sometimes they are dyed too orange. The sulfur dioxide can impart a nasty taste, so try to find them without: look for Turkish.
Dried apricots are made into flat strips of “leather” made of skinless paste, available at Middle Eastern markets. I have found that children like this as a novelty for box lunches and after-school snacks. For that matter, dried apricots go well diced into granola, muesli, trail mixes, and gorp, replacing the ubiquitous raisin. And if you stir in some tales like Aladdin’s Lamp from Arabian Nights, that may further arouse their curiosity.
For all ages, apricots have been used in diverse ways, sweet and savory, sour and spicy, simple and complex, across the broad swath of the fruit’s path westward, evoking its exotic history, from China to the Hunza Valley of Central Asia and across the Caucasus to Persia. Some of the dishes suggested here describe its many possibilities, while a few are given detailed recipes.
In China, apricots are sometimes preserved by salting and smoking, methods which sound intriguing but I have not yet tried. There is a Chinese black tea which is subtly flavored with bits of dried apricot, not easy to come by but very refreshing. In Japan, where ornamental apricot trees grow in landscape gardens, a small sour variety of the fruit is pickled and eaten for breakfast as a restorative. In India, dried apricots may be folded into yogurt raitas with vegetables and spices as a savory sweet-and-sour accompaniment to fiery dishes. A dessert called Quabani ka meetha is made with a sweet cultivar unavailable here, in which it is steeped with nothing but water and a little lemon juice until soft and then puréed. The kernels from inside the apricot stone are added at the end as garnish.
Throughout the whole central Asian region of India and Pakistan moving towards Persia and around the Mediterranean, dried apricots are often added to rice pilaf and polo, in their diverse spellings and combinations, both savory and sweet. Mishmish is the Arabic word for apricot, which lends its name to the Moroccan mishmishiya, a kind of tajin, or tagine, for festive occasions. These braises, named for the conical container in which they are cooked, include lamb or perhaps chicken or duck with dried apricots, onions, and other vegetables, in a deeply complex and spicy dish.
In some bitter varieties the apricot kernel contains toxic prussic acid unless roasted or processed correctly. The amaretto, a lovely macaroon meringue cookie from southern Italy, is made with apricot kernels rather than bitter almonds, their relative. A popular Italian dessert, Pesche piemontese—peach halves baked with crushed macaroons and almond paste filling—could just as well be made with apricots. Almonds are often baked into pastries and myriad other dishes with apricots, a natural combination. I like to use pistachios, un-dyed and unsalted, for their striking color contrast of green nut with orange fruit.
Just as the fresh apricot’s tangy flavor takes well to spices brought with it from the East—ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin, to name a few—it pairs sublimely with the assertive flavor of chocolate. Sachertorte, the rich classic dessert from Vienna, has layers of chocolate cake spread with apricot jam and bittersweet chocolate icing over all. Apricot jam is a staple for pastry chefs who often use it strained and melted as a glaze. Its round flavor and golden hue gives a shimmery glow to tarts and gateaux.
For an American summer, fresh apricots are excellent on the grill. Cut ripe but firm apricots nearly in half, remove the pits, then thread the fruit on a pair of skewers (to keep them from swiveling). Brush them with a cumin- and chili-scented marinade and grill them, turning and basting a few times, to accompany grilled country-style pork chops or chicken thighs. Or at the end of your barbecue, lay apricot halves flesh-side-down to the side of the grill in the lingering heat; turn them over and serve plated with scoops of ginger ice cream that melts and mingles with the caramelized juices.
When fresh apricots are in season, few things are better than a compote of the fruit lightly poached in simple syrup, with a few fresh berries tossed on top before serving. For that matter, on a warm summer day, a lusciously ripe apricot eaten out of hand is incomparable. We can find the poetry all by ourselves.
The orchards below grow apricots which you can find at their farmstands or at many farmers markets in the greater Boston area:
Nicewicz (“nishway”) Family Farm 116 Sawyer Road, Bolton | 978.779.6423 | nicewiczfarm.com
The Big Apple Farm 207 Arnold Street, Wrentham | 508.384.3055 | thebigapplefarm.com
Keown Orchards 10 McClellan Road, Sutton | 508.865.6706 | keownorchards.com
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), has been in print since 1986. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Beth can be reached at email@example.com.