On my way back to Eugene, I was feeling a little bitter and sorry for myself because I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do in California thanks to the funeral side trip to Michigan. I had planned to take a longer route down, a solo road trip, that would allow me to visit colleagues and friends and explore a bit of California’s Central Valley, America’s bread basket.
The Central Valley, according to an NPR story, is “the greatest garden in the world” and reports that it produces 25% of the nation’s food. As someone who lives in America’s former bread basket, the Willamette Valley of central Oregon, I view it with an amateur historian’s eye — fascinated and horrified by commercial farming practices that turn a fertile crescent of land into monocultures ruled by pesticides. In particular, I was thinking of investigating a little farm or two that might be growing unusual olives to spite those black marbles we see on the grocery story shelves or those awful huge pyramid-shaped flavorless strawberries that weren’t meant for shipping.
The funeral dashed my hopes and free time, but I got lucky anyway, and stopped at a few local produce stands along highway 505 at Winters and I-5 near Williams. And found what I was not expecting, including a nut wall made of shipping containers that separated an auto business from a popular taco truck in Winters. (I snapped this shot while waiting for my lengua tacos for my friend John Mariani, no relation, and told him his detractors were at it again.)
Most notably, Royal apricots were up and running at the Double R Ranch produce stand in Winters, so a picked up half a flat with some olive oil from Knabke Farms. I only found out later that Heath Ranch Organics in Orland grows fantastic and wonderful varieties of citrus fruits as part of a 30-some-year relationship with experimental research scientists needing a demo farm. (That’s their gas pump and sign, above.) If I had known Ron and Melanie Heath were so cool, I would have stayed longer and asked to tour the farm, but we did have a quick chat about blood oranges and Sevilles as we snacked on the absolutely best Valencia oranges I’ve ever tasted in my life. I managed to leave with some of those oranges, a blue star thistle honey bear, a pound of pistachios grown and roasted down the road, and a pound of red wine-marinated kalamata olives.
The Québécois make a conserve called nougabricot that famed jammière, the Alsatian pastry chef Christine Ferber, has made famous. With all due respect to my French-Canadian ancestors, I think nougabricot sounds like a mouthful of marbles, and a conserve made of apricots, almonds, pistachios, oranges, lemons, and honey is really a California thing, so I have taken the liberty to rename it:
California in a Jar
A conserve of apricots, almonds, and pistachios. Yield 6 half pints.
- 2.75 lbs. ripe but not overripe apricots (choose an heirloom variety like Royals or Royal Blenheims if you can)
- 2 cups sugar
- 8 oz. dark honey (Ferber suggests chestnut, I used avocado honey for the California theme)
- 1 lemon, juiced and zested
- 1 orange, juiced and zested
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
- 2/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
- 2/3 cup shelled pistachios (unsalted or rinsed if they are salted)
- few dashes rose water (optional)
Wash, pit, and quarter apricots. Very large apricots should be cut in pieces. Wash and sterilize your jars and prepare two-piece lids.
In a large pot, bring all ingredients to a simmer, then pour into a glass or stainless bowl, cover with parchment paper, as any apricots left exposed will oxidize to brown, and refrigerate overnight.
The following day, strain the solids from the liquids and place liquids in your preserving pan. Heat the liquids until they are syrupy and reach a temperature of 220 degrees, which will allow some thickening to occur (but it will still be a loose-set product).
Add the solids to the syrup and bring to a vigorous boil, then keep at a boil for five minutes. Let sit off heat for five minutes and skim foam. Add a few dashes of rosewater if you like, and ladle product into sterilized jars.
For processing, fill to 1/4 inch from top, pressing down apricots and nuts under syrup to combat oxidization problem, and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner. Between you and me, I think this one really should be kept fresh and in the refrigerator, so I didn’t process the jars. The hot conserve “sealed” the lids after I added the product, but it is a weak seal and I must stress a refrigerator is necessary if you don’t waterbath can the jars.