“The Valley of Heart’s Delight”
To those who hold it dear
A veritable Paradise
Each season of the year.
One loves it best in April
When fruit trees are in bloom;
And a mass of snowy blossoms
Yield a subtle sweet perfume.
When orchard after orchard
Is spread before the eyes
With the whitest of white blossoms
‘Neath the bluest of blue skies.
No brush could paint the picture
No pen describe the sight
That one can find in April
In “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.”
When I was growing up, Santa Clara County was still the foremost fruit-producing county in California with the romantic and well-deserved title, the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”. As children, we took for granted being able to wander among the great orchards in the spring, with their wealth of white and pink blossoms, and in the summer, when tree branches bent beneath the weight of purple prunes and golden apricots. The landscape was alive with color, sweet fruit, and fragrant smells.
With a large remnant French Prune orchard, our Saratoga property also contained an arboretum of individual fruit trees: Apricot, Peach, Persimmon, Almond, Fig, Apple, Meyer lemon, Kumquat, and Loquat. Each one produced a tremendous amount of fruit, providing more than our family needed, which gave us kids a lazy summer pastime selling baskets of fruit along the road. Our Spanish style ranch house, built in the 1940s, was embraced by its orchard, fruit trees and gardens. I learned much later that our property was part of the original Glen Una Ranch, which was once the world’s largest French prune orchard.
Many of my childhood friends earned money picking apricots and prunes in nearby orchards during the summer. They had to climb up into the trees to fill 5-gallon buckets, brushing aside bugs and bees. More of them got jobs cutting the “cots”, then setting them on wood trays that covered acres and acres of land to dry in the summer sun. They were paid by the tray and it was hot, messy work.
In that era, with just one or two apricot or prune trees in their own yard, it was common for families to improvise their own drying methods, even using their screen doors to dry the fruit to preserve and enjoy throughout the year. Orchardists sold very little fresh fruit and nearly the entire crop was dried or canned. Our world was circumscribed by fruit trees and orchards and we didn’t give much thought as to how it came to be that way.
Santa Clara Valley’s agricultural origins formed long before it gained its charming name, the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”, with the establishment of the Missions at Santa Clara and San Jose in the late 1700s. Eugene Sawyer describes this in his book about the History of Santa Clara County:
“The fathers who planted the Missions, planted orchards at the same time and found a full return for their labor. The fertility of the soil was supplemented by a peculiarity of climate that enabled trees to grow many more weeks in the year than in other countries, while during the season of rest there was no freezing weather to chill their sap or delay their progress in the spring“.
In the 1790s, explorer George Vancouver wrote of the Mission orchards, “Here were planted peaches, apricots, apples, pears, figs and vines, all of which excepting the latter promised to succeed very well.” As growth progressed in the early 1800s, it was incredibly important that they had access to the best ranch equipment on the market, as they played a big part in helping the Mission orchards to supply the early cattle ranches with fruit when the primary commerce was in horses, cattle, hides, tallow, and wheat.
The Gold Rush in 1849 brought the era of the American settlement to California, and for those who sought land rather than gold, the Mission orchards provided the first grafts for early orchards. H.S. Foote wrote:
“The scarcity of fruit and consequent high prices gave a great stimulus to horticulture. Apples, imported into San Francisco, sold at retail for a dollar apiece, and other fruit in proportion. People thought that at half these prices there would be more money in a bearing orchard than in the richest gold mine yet discovered.“
The early orchards were primarily planted with pears and apples. One large step toward Santa Clara County becoming a worldwide producer of fruit was made by the Frenchman, Louis Pellier, who introduced “la Petite Prune d’Agen”, the French prune, in 1854. When grafted onto the local wild plum rootstock, he produced the famous Santa Clara Valley prune that became the predominant fruit in the county within a few decades. Louis and his brother Pierre also founded the Mirassou Winery. Because of the Pellier brothers, California produces 99% of the nation’s prunes and 70% of the world’s prunes.
In 1868, the completion of the transcontinental railroad opened up markets for fruit transport to the East and stimulated the development of fruit processing and shipping in the valley. Janet Humphrey’s pamphlet about fruit preservation in Santa Clara County, From Blossoms to the World, notes that within a few years, Dr. James M. Dawson created the first commercial cannery, the San Jose Fruit Packing Company and soon after, canneries spread all over the valley. The more modest but still important invention of the Mason canning jar, in 1875, created greater convenience for home canning of fruit, preserves, and vegetables. As a result of these innovations, Eugene Sawyer noted:
“The fruit industry grew by leaps and bounds, vineyards, pastures and grain lands were converted into fruit orchards until the county became one vast orchard — the largest in the world.“
By the turn of the century, the orchards spread for miles up and down the County, as recounted by E. Alexander Powell, a world traveler, who wrote:
“If you go to the Santa Clara Valley when I did, which was in March, you will find that the people of the valley are celebrating the Feast of the Blossoms. It is a very beautiful festival, in which every man, woman and child in this fifty-mile-long garden of fruit and flowers takes part, but you cannot appreciate its true significance until you have climbed to a point on the slopes of the mountains which form the garden wall, where the whole enchanting panorama lies before you. Did you ever see one hundred and twenty-five square miles of vineyard and trees in snow-white blossom at one time?“
The City of Saratoga initiated the Blossom Festival tradition in March, 1900, “to express thankfulness for the harvest to come, when the fruit trees of the valley were in bloom.” The first year, Saratoga families drove their horse buggies to the Los Gatos railroad depot to meet local visitors who arrived on the narrow gauge train, and took them on a ride through the Glen Una Ranch to view the blossom panorama; then on to the Village for games, prizes, and a picnic meal. Hundreds of people enjoyed the experience, far exceeding their expectations! The next year, over 2,000 visitors attended the Blossom Festival, traveling from across the Valley and as far away as San Francisco.
The strain of providing transport for the instantly popular event was solved in 1904 when the San Jose & Los Gatos Interurban Railway began service connecting San Jose, Campbell, Los Gatos, Saratoga and Mayfield (south Palo Alto), bringing Festival guests directly to the Village of Saratoga. The Festival quickly grew to have an international reputation and enjoyed crowds of up to 20,000 at its peak. With the growth of automobiles, transportation to the Blossom Festival became more individualized and people could tour on their own along a recommended route during the season. The Blossom Festival continued for 42 years, until WWII, when it was interrupted by the war. It was only recently revived in 2012.
In 1914, just before the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition brought even greater attention to San Francisco and the Bay Area, Santa Clara County and its member cities’ Chambers of Commerce published a booklet extolling the virtues of this agricultural paradise.
“This is the valley whose reputation is not Californian, not confined to the United States, but like its fruit and the scent of its blossoms has spread to far-away lands. World visitors come to glimpse its beauty, sip its nectar and breathe its perfume.“
Somewhere near the peak of its existence, in 1919, the Valley of Heart’s Delight comprised close to 100,000 acres planted in fruit trees and 3,000 acres in vines, nearly 25% of the total valley. Farmland cultivated with vegetables and berries covered another 86,000 acres. More prunes were grown in the Santa Clara Valley than were produced in the entire United States. In 1919, there were 7,652,000 prune trees. Apricots came next with 665,000 trees, peaches third with 482,000 trees, and cherries fourth with 380,000 trees. At that time, Santa Clara County’s production represented 75 percent of the prune and apricot acreage of the State.
By 1939, San Jose had a population of 57,651 and was the largest canning and dried-fruit packing center in the world, with 18 canneries, 13 dried-fruit packing houses, and 12 fresh-fruit and vegetable shipping firms. As Yvonne Jacobsen wrote in her expansive work about family farms in the Santa Clara Valley, Passing Farms: Enduring Values,
“The war changed everything. It brought thousands of military personnel to the West Coast on the way to the Pacific and helped speed the country’s westward movement of population. After the war, Santa Clara County led the state with an increase in population at a rate double the growth of California itself.”
As is well documented in histories of the Valley, the end of WWII brought an era of rapid growth and investment in the region. The City of San Jose as well as small towns like Sunnyvale, Cupertino, and Campbell expanded over the flat, fertile land to accommodate new suburban housing and commercial development, displacing farms at a steadily increasing pace.
By the early 1960s, when my family arrived in the Santa Clara Valley, orchards began to disappear rapidly, replaced by neighborhoods and shopping centers that often bore their names. Our first home in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood was in a new subdivision carved out of a walnut orchard, with great walnut trees remaining in our front and back yards. The pattern continues to this day; it has just moved further south.
In 1984, author Wallace Stegner lamented the passing of the agricultural era, writing:
“Silicon Valley is probably good. The Valley of Heart’s Delight was a glory. We should have found ways of keeping one from destroying the other.“
Fortunately, we still have the Apricot Orchard Families remaining today, striving to maintain the Valley of Heart’s Delight traditions of producing world-class fruit! I had the pleasure of participating in the Farm Tour and Tasting event at Andy’s Orchard on July 2. Hundreds of people arrived from all over the Bay Area to sample dozens of apricot varieties that Andy cultivates, along with a wide range of other stone fruits. In addition to the Royal Blenheim apricot, we especially enjoyed tasting the Bonny Royal, Candy Cot, Alameda-Hemskirke and Afghanistan varieties, while sharing tastes of the delicious Apricot Bar recipe that Andy gave me and information about the forthcoming For the Love of Apricots cookbook.
While apricots are still available this summer, I hope you will enjoy this simple, colorful and delicious tart as much as I do.
This simple, elegant tart is adapted from “The American Baker” by Jim Dodge, a Bay Area pastry chef of renown. I had the pleasure of discovering Jim Dodge while he was pastry chef at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco and am proud to have a signed first edition copy of his outstanding cookbook.
|Yield: Serving Size: 8
|Prep Time: 45 minutes
|Cook Time: 60 minutes