Apricot Orchard Families

Novakovich Fruit Stand
Novakovich Fruit Stand

Not long after starting on this journey to create an Apricot Cookbook, I stopped by Novakovich Orchards to buy more of their Blenheim apricots before heading up the hill to attend a Mountain Winery concert. It was early July, getting toward the end of the local fresh Apricot season, and the weather was hot. I purchased a case of apricots, to use for making jam and pastries over the coming week, feeling fortunate to get some of the last fruit from their orchard. The Blenheim apricot season is so short, only about a month long, and once it has passed, hardly any other variety will do. Luckily, most of the crop is dried so Blenheim apricots are always in supply.

Novakovich Family
Novakovich Family

The Novakovich family purchased their orchard land on Fruitvale Avenue, in the heart of Saratoga, in 1925. Originally 22 acres in size, today the third generation, Matt, Dan and George and their mother Leah operate their 11-acre holding as well as the nearby City of Saratoga Heritage Orchard, where they grow apricots, cherries, prunes and plums.

While chatting with Matt and George at the farm stand, I noticed a stack of brochures titled “Country Crossroads” that lists farms in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, the crops they grow and includes a map. Scanning for apricots, I saw that there are several orchards that produce and sell fresh apricots in addition to the Novakovich family orchard. I was intrigued to visit them and invited my fledgling apricot team to join me.

I contacted four apricot orchard families and found out some basic information about their history and operations:

  • Andy’s Orchard, Morgan Hill. Andy Mariani is part of the extended Mariani family who have been central to the fruit industry in the Santa Clara Valley. Andy’s father purchased 40 acres in Morgan Hill in 1957 which were originally planted entirely in apricots. When Andy and his brother took over the operation, they converted the majority of the ranch to cherries, which comprises 25 acres. Today, Andy’s Orchards include the full range of stone fruits and has about 8 acres dedicated to Apricots.
  • Olson’s Cherries and Fruit Stand, Sunnyvale. Charlie Olson, owner. Charlie’s parents purchased 25 acres here during the Depression, preferring to grow cherries rather than the predominant prunes. Charlie grew up with his two sisters, working in their orchards from a young age. Now in his ’80s, Charlie remains in full charge of a 13-acre orchard with 3 acres of cherries and 10 acres of apricots that he planted and cultivated for the City of Sunnyvale. His daughter Deborah runs their C.J. Olson Fruit Stand that is located on their original homestead.
  • Van Dyke Ranch, Gilroy. The Van Dyke family established their orchard operation in 1921 and have been farming for 5 generations. Betty Mardesich Van Dyke grew up in Cupertino with Andy Mariani and Charlie Olson. In 1975, Betty and her sons took over the farm from her father and in 1998, her son Peter began managing the ranch, converting the operation to certified organic. The Van Dykes have 45 acres in apricots. They also grow cherries, walnuts, and specialize in dried nectarines, peaches, pears, plums and persimmons.
  • Fairhaven Orchards, Hollister. In 1958, George Rajkovich and his brother Martin purchased 85 acres in Hollister, adding to their their landholdings over the years. George’s wife Lucille expanded the operation in 1975 by opening the Fairhaven Orchards farm stand. Today, George, Lucille and their children own and operate more than 300 acres of cherry, walnut and apricot orchards. Their primary crop is cherries (200 acres) with walnuts in second place (80 acres), and the 12 acres in apricots are entirely planted with the Blenheim variety.

We decided to visit Andy’s Orchards first, not realizing what a treat was in store. I called Andy Mariani, and found him to be warm and welcoming. Since the fresh apricot season was coming to an end and the heat was high, Andy encouraged us to come immediately. We rode on a tractor to tour his cluster of orchards and he invited us to taste the apricots right off the trees.

In Andy's Orchard
In Andy’s Orchard

I grew up thinking that the excellent flavor of the Royal Blenheim apricot was the definition of “apricot”, only to discover otherwise when I left Saratoga and shopped for apricots in grocery stores. Although half of his apricot orchards are planted with Blenheims, we were surprised to discover that Andy had so many other apricot varieties that were delicious too. Andy is a scientist farmer, working with UC Davis to develop new apricot varieties that provide extraordinary flavor. I’d never heard of nor seen these unique varieties in any market or farmers market: Bonny Royals, Candy Cots, Moorparks and Alameda-Hemkirke make up the other half of his apricot acreage and are sold at his large fruit stand, which we visited after our orchard tour.

Bonny Royal apricots
Bonny Royal apricots

It was hard to choose the best among these delicious but rare varieties, although I thought the large, reddish Bonny Royal apricot was comparable to the Blenheim and purchased some to take home and share with my family. Andy’s concern about their tendency to “crack”, which might deter customers from purchasing them, doesn’t phase me. The Bonny Royal’s excellent flavor, juicy texture and intense color far outweigh any cosmetic imperfection.

My Bonny Royal tree
My Bonny Royal tree

Andy mentioned that he could graft a Bonny Royal tree for me, which I purchased this year to plant alongside my two Blenheim trees. Always experimenting, Andy recently shared his excitement about a new variety, the “White Knockout”, a blond and delicious apricot that I am looking forward to tasting on my next visit.

Outside of his farm stand, Andy only sells his highly valued fruit at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, where top restaurants place orders in advance. The same is true locally, with the 3-Michelin star Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos being a regular customer as well as noted cookbook author, David Leibovitz.

Andy with drying apricots
Andy with drying apricots

As the apricot industry has shifted away from the warm and sheltered Santa Clara Valley toward the Central Valley, where the weather is more extreme and agriculture has become industrialized, varieties like Tilton and Patterson have become commonplace. These apricots have good color, size and retain firmness, making them easy to ship, due to their longer shelf life. Unfortunately, these varieties have very little flavor and tend to have a dry texture, unlike the lovely, luscious Blenheim. The Blenheim variety  also makes the best dried apricot due to their rich flavor, high moisture content and deep color. All good reasons to patiently wait for the small, fragile but extraordinary Royal Blenheim and consider planting a tree of your own!

Picking time
Picking time

Yet, even some of the small family farm operators I’ve talked with at my farmers market, say they don’t bother with the Blenheim variety because “it takes too much work”. Climate change is another factor that local farmers worry may be reducing their yield over time. It is indeed a labor of love and the pride of carrying on a tradition of excellence that keeps these Santa Clara Valley orchardists continuing to cultivate the Blenheim and other specialty apricots.

Blenheim apricot
Blenheim apricot

 

Andy's Orchard label
Andy’s Orchard label

This year, the apricot season started very early, in late April, with fruit arriving from the San Joaquin Valley. The first varieties I tasted at our farmers market, Apache and Poppy, were tart and reasonably moist, so I bought some to make desserts where a subtle apricot flavor is sufficient. I’ll wait to make jam, preserves and bake my favorite pies and tarts until the 3-4 week period when Blenheims are available, beginning in June.

 

This recipe for an Apricot Almond Cake is the first cake using fresh apricots in my repertoire and one I have returned to dozens of times. I have always enjoyed filling cakes with my homemade jams but that doesn’t really count. It’s a two-step process, as shown in the photos below, with a wonderful result that I know you will enjoy!


Apricot Almond Cake


This recipe comes together so quickly in a food processor that you can make this simple, elegant cake on a moments notice. The flavor combination of tart/sweet apricots and rich almonds is one of my favorites. 

Mix, pour and bake
Mix, pour and bake

Yield: 6 Prep Time: 20 minutes Cook Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 10-12 Blenheim or other fresh, ripe apricots, halved

  • 1/2 cup blanched whole or slivered almonds

  • 1/4 cup flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla

  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract

  • 2 large eggs

  • 3/4 cup sugar

  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

  • powdered sugar, sifted (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch round glass or ceramic baking dish

  2. Place apricot halves cut side down in baking dish in concentric circles

  3. In a food processor, chop the almonds with the flour and baking powder for about 1 minute until finely ground

  4. Remove the almond mixture and place in a bowl. Put the eggs, sugar, vanilla and almond extracts in the food processor and mix for 1 minute

  5. While the processor is running, add the melted butter and pulse for 10 seconds

  6. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add in the flour mixture. Pulse for a few seconds, just until the flour disappears

  7. Pour the batter evenly over the apricots and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the cake is golden and has shrunk away from the edge of the pan. Remove from the oven and cool, then dust with sifted powdered sugar.

Adapted from the San Francisco Encore Cookbook



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21 comments on “Apricot Orchard Families”:

  1. I just happened on this blog and really enjoyed the pictures and descriptions of orchard life. My family built a house in Los Altos in the early 50’s in the middle of an apricot orchard. We had 22 trees on our property and I spent many summers cutting cots to be dried. Across the street was a prune orchard and almond orchards. Lots of memories playing in the orchards and picking fruit. Such a simpler, safer time to have lived. Ps. I haven’t tasted a good apricot in many years.

  2. When I was a girl we lived in Los Altos Hills and my grandmother lived in San Jose in an apartment building. Across the street form her was a prune orchard and I would always run over their to pick up some prunes that had fallen off the trees. I remember so well the frequent site of rows and rows of fruit trees during my childhood. How wonderful that you are recapturing this history.

  3. The Alameda-Hemkirke apricot was developed by my grandfather, Leonard Coates. He had a nursery in Morgan Hill in the early 1900’s and was most known for prunes. Andy Mariani would always give some to my mother when we visited his orchard. It pleases us that he has continued growing this variety.

  4. What a wonderful post to come across tonight. I’m in love with Blenheim Apricots. I grew up in the area – in what was an apricot orchard at one time. Lucky for us, our backyard included one of the apricot trees from the old orchard. Summers were busy with canning apricot, making pies and cobblers and enjoying them fresh. Dad even tried to “dry” them once. Now with my own family we are lucky to have a Blenheim tree in the backyard and this season it has blessed us with an abundance of beautiful and tasty fruit. Yes, we’ve been busy with canning, preparing fruit to freeze for pies and cobblers, and nibbling them fresh. Yum! So happy to have found your blog and this post! 😉

  5. Thanks for putting so much into this. What depth of history and flavor I would have missed in life without your efforts. I would have missed much of the beauty and humanity of the apricot had you not shared. Thank you.

  6. You missed two great apricot families in San Benito County — Apricot King and B&R Farms. You can find them online.

  7. I passed a neighborhood tree this morning in Campbell that was loaded with Blenheim’s. I’d talked to the owner several times over the last few years as I watched this tree grow. He’d encouraged me to help myself earlier this spring, so I took one on my way out, and one on my way home from a run this morning. I split one and took a bite, and my childhood memories came rushing back. These had an incredibly beautiful color with an unbelievably sweet flavor and brought an “OMG – where am I going to wash my hands now” response. The emotional response that these brought back was so thick, it was like climbing apricot trees in the orchard off Allendale & Fruitvale, brushing back the leaves looking for the next apricot.

    My first Blenheim of the season – thanks for leading me back!

  8. Thank you for this wonderful article …I am 89 years old..Grew up in Willow Glen….During the war I cut cots,and my brother worked in the local canneries..We also loved to purchase fresh fruit from the roadside stands …What wonderful memories……..

  9. Just found your blog and am going to try this great looking recipe. As a South Bay native and a resident of Morgan Hill, I have been lucky enough to enjoy the fruit from Andy’s Orchard on a regular basis. Way back, when there were orchards everywhere here, I used to help my Grandparents dry their apricots (my absolute favorite when they are wonderfully ripe) on the racks in Los Altos. So many great memories!

  10. Thank you for your wonderful stories of our agricultural past, and remaining present.
    I remember when my folks bought a brand new home just off what’s now known as De Anza Blvd., in 1965. The builder proudly touted that every back yard had a heritage apricot tree in the back yard.
    How little we knew, that this would be one of many changes that would see our precious orchards disappear.
    Is this really progress???

  11. Thank you, for re-awakening wonderful memories of my childhood. I grew up in Morgan Hill on the old Watsonville Road, near Oak Dell Park in the late 50’s and 60’s
    My Dad managed a ranch that grew French prunes, strawberries, English walnuts and wine grapes. We also had apricot, pear, peach , cherry and plum trees to feast on. Summer swimming in the Uvas River. A better childhood could not been had for our family.
    Out of my childhood on the ranch. I inherited a love for gardening and the outdoors.
    Cannot wait to get your cook book.
    Peace and Blessings.

  12. Thank you for all the information and great memories. I am sorry that I just found your article. too late for this year. I will put this on my calendar for next year! Bravo!!

  13. I have memories of walking to Homestead High School, past a stand of apricot trees. Whoever owned them never picked them so we felt obliged to help ourselves. There is nothing better, in the fruit world at least, than cupping your hand under a warm ripe apricot and have it detach itself from the tree and nestle softly in your hand before you take the first bite. Explosions of Apricot! And the dance you have to do to not have the juice run down you arm and chin to cover you in sticky goodness. Oh such wonderful memories to revisit this morning over my morning coffee. Thank you!

  14. I agree with other comments! Wonderfully done article! With all the people, house and roads taking over the orchards we all grew up with is a awesome reminder of the beauty, smells of a time gone by. I grew up off Blossom Hill Road in the 60’s when it blossomed 🌸 with Almond orchards, Apricot orchards and vineyards… Such a lucky girl. Thank you for the reminder! Sweet, indeed.

  15. My family moved to Saratoga in 1956 near Fruitvale Ave. There were 17 apricot trees on our property.
    We made apricot jam, pies, cobbler and dried them in our backyard. Thanks for this apricot story. Brought back many wonderful memories 😀

  16. Lisa, Nicely researched. It was interesting to read about the family histories. An appealing recipe at the end.

  17. Love it all! Great work – I agree that Royal Blenheims have that classic taste (and best) but I didn’t know their season is so short! I learned a lot about what you’ve been working on and really enjoyed the photos 🙂

  18. What gorgeous photography, and heartwarming stories. How important it is to honor the art of family farming, and you do it beautifully with this blog.

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