I drove over the Coastal hills in early June with some friends to experience the Apricot Fiesta in Patterson, the “Apricot Capitol of the World” and to visit George Bonacich at his Apricot ranch nearby. My first impressions of apricot orchards, Central Valley style? They are big and so are the fruit! The contrast between lush, irrigated orchards and the surrounding dry grassland hills is striking too. I felt a little like Dorothy, leaving my memories of the fertile, temperate, and forested Santa Clara Valley behind for this arid region of large scale orchard agriculture,”…we’re not in Kansas anymore!”
California’s Central Valley has a dramatically different climate and landscape than the Bay Area where apricot orchards were first cultivated in California. From the late 1800s through the 1960s, Santa Clara County was the “Apricot Capital of the World”, though it never boasted the title, with over 18,000 acres planted in Apricots at its peak. Renowned for its extravagant beauty as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, Santa Clara County enjoyed a unique confluence of benign climate, family farming culture and technological development. The post-war boom brought a swift end to this way of life and by the 1970s, Stanislaus County claimed title as the Apricot Capital with just 8,000 acres of apricots, due to the phenomenal pace of urbanization in the Bay Area and loss of agricultural land.
Patterson, emerged as the center for apricot farming in the great Central Valley, although apricots are grown from Lassen County in the northern Sacramento Valley to southernmost Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley. Today, the region is fighting its own battles with urban encroachment and apricot orchard acreage is on the decline.
The first stop was to the Apricot Fiesta, right in the heart of Patterson. I learned that Patterson has an interesting origin story. Originally a Mexican land grant called Rancho La Puerta, President Abraham Lincoln patented a land grant of 13,340 acres that was purchased by New York rancher and businessman, John D. Patterson in 1864. Patterson increased the land area significantly during his lifetime. After his death, Patterson’s heir Thomas W. Patterson laid out the future city in a pattern inspired by the design of Washington D.C., featuring a small downtown circle from which streets radiate outward like the spokes of a wheel. The surrounding land was divided into small ranches and the City of Patterson incorporated in 1919.
Today, the Historical Society Museum occupies the original “Center Building” and the Apricot Fiesta’s music, food and amusements spread in all directions on the surrounding streets for three days. Apricots, the City’s famous crop, are featured around the inner circle. Parades, pie eating contests and the coronation of Princesses and a Little Miss and Mister Apricot make for a unique twist on a very American festival.
The information booth, staffed with the Apricot Royalty (Princesses and runners up), had lots of free pamphlets about apricot nutrition, recipes and, of course, t-shirts for sale. Among the apricot purveyors was Bogdanich’s SunBlest Apricot Orchards. The Bogdanich family began farming Apricots in the Santa Clara Valley and eventually migrated to Patterson. Today, they grow many varieties of apricots on 20 acres.
Caroline Bogdanich and her son Michael were handling a bustling business and we tried nearly everything: from two kinds of fresh apricots (Gold Bar and Patterson), reddish and very moist dried apricots, a delicious apricot-filled pastry, apricot jam, and other apricot-enhanced preserves like pepper jelly, pepper sauce and salsa.
We got talking about the various apricot varieties and opinions on flavor. Caroline said that she loves Blenheims (this is gospel among Apricot lovers) but prefers the relatively new “Ruby Royal” variety even more. I had heard the same thing at my Farmers Market the week before and was intrigued to try them this year!
There were many more apricot products to taste or buy at other stops: Apricot kettle corn, the Boy Scout’s Apricot ice cream, Apricot wine, Apricot sangria, and Apricot/pepper roasted almonds. After all that, we skipped lunch and headed north out of town to visit George Bonacich at his ranch.
George Bonacich‘s grandparents emigrated from Croatia in the early 1900s, settling in Cupertino. His parents met there at social events and established their own orchard. George grew up among an extended family who farmed both Apricots and Cherries on over 100 acres. After studying Pomology at UC Davis, George operated a French Prune orchard in Healdsburg. Later, he returned to Hollister, just south of Santa Clara Valley, where he grew apricots. In 1969, he and his father decided to invest in the 160-acre Patterson ranch, given the increasing cost of land in the Santa Clara Valley, driven up by the pressure of urban development. While he lives in Gilroy, George, a youngster at 87 years, continues to operate this ranch with the partnership of his daughter and son-in-law. He is regarded as an innovator who has helped to develop many new varieties of apricots.
Initially, George’s Patterson ranch was entirely planted with the Tilton variety. At that time, Tilton Apricots were the leading variety in the Central Valley because they were well suited for commercial processing (freezing, drying and canning), although not as flavorful as the Royal Blenheim, which was the primary apricot grown in the Santa Clara Valley. The Patterson apricot emerged after the Tilton and steadily gained favor in the region for its good size, consistent color and firm texture. Pattersons are primarily used in canning, although some make it to the fresh apricot market. Today, the varieties most commonly grown in the region are the Patterson, Tilton and Apache.
In his career as an orchardist, George has tested over 100 varieties of apricots. I know from tasting the Bonny Royal Apricot he developed that George is committed to creating and growing apricots with excellent flavor as well as the other important characteristics (color, texture and firmness) essential to marketing this delicate fruit. Among his favorites are the fairly new Ruby Royal, Tom Cot, Gold Bar, Bonny Cot, Sandy Cot, among other new varieties still in the experimental stage. George no longer grows the Tilton or Patterson Apricots, focusing instead on these newer and emerging varieties.
George manages a very large operation on 160 acres and is the 4th largest apricot producer in California (considering that 95% of the apricots produced in the United States originate in California, his operation is 4th largest in America). At this scale, the need for labor-intensive hand picking of the delicate fruit has to be balanced with machine cutting in order to manage cost and efficiency with this fragile product. At smaller orchards, all of this work is done by hand. During the peak of the season, up to 40 tons of apricots are processed (washed, machine cut and set out to dry) in a day. About half of the crop is sold fresh, much of it distributed through Safeway and Costco, and the rest is dried. George produces both sulfered and unsulfered dried apricots, primarily using the Ruby Royal and Bonny Royal varieties that have great color, flavor and moistness to produce a top quality dried fruit.
This recipe was inspired by the tasty Sangria we enjoyed at the Apricot Fiesta, prepared by Stewart and Jasper Orchards. It was a refreshing summer drink as we strolled around the fair in the hot sun! They suggest freezing the fresh apricot slices before mixing the drink. Be sure to chill the Sangria well before serving; the flavor will improve the longer it sits, for up to two days.
|Yield: Makes 2 quarts||Prep Time: 30 minutes|