Culinary Traveler: Valley of Fruit

Sunday April 23, 2017

mariani orchard drying yard with slats of Sant Clara Valley apricots

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately, which happened in a flash last week when I drove south on El

my home

Camino Real, passing the land that used to be Olson’s cherry orchards.  The aging cherry trees have been pulled out to make way for more shopping centers and apartments, which is also the fate for Brentwood, west of Stockton, where much of our California fruit has been coming from in the last decade. Certainly we are lucky to have a revival of home grown goodness being touted at the farmer’s markets and all over the internet for the buy local movement, but when an orchard is gone, paved over with a parking lot, what is gone is gone.

Cherry Orchard in Winter by Arlette

Cherry Orchard in Winter by Arlette

The Olson cherry orchards were the last remnants of a day gone by when the Santa Clara Valley was spoken in the same breath as the heartland of France and Armenia, premier fruit growing regions of the Western world.  To newcomers to the Silicon Valley, it must be a stretch of the imagination to think this valley was a virtual Garden of Eden, fertile fields geometrically planted with all the common fruit trees–apricot, pear, cherry, peach, and prune plums.  All are members of the rose family, so their blossoms upon close inspection look like tiny single-petaled roses.  The mass flowering of the these trees in early spring was a beautiful sight with the vivid green of the coastal range providing the background. The valley is also conducive to a wide range of citrus, grapes, persimmon, and apples.

Apricot trees were first brought to California with the Franciscan friars and planted around the missions.  The first housing developments south of Palo Alto were carved into the center of the vast apricot orchards and I grew up under their boughs.  Apricot season is notoriously short. I used to sit in the the crook of the trees and eat my fill of tree-ripened golden-pink orbs in the first heat of summer, then pick a bag for my mom to make her double-crusted apricot pie or a Bisquick fruit-topped cobbler (the Bisquick website still has the recipe). During the spring time, the air was thick with the aroma of ripe apricots. The entire valley smelled like that for a short time.

As a pre-teen, I would ride at 7 AM on the handlebars of my girlfriend’s bike to the Marinovitch orchard on Oak Avenue in Los Altos and cut cots with a small curved paring knife alongside the Mexican workers in the steamy heat of early summer for $1.00 a tray, good money in those days for a kid. It was mostly women and us kids gossiping and laughing, although it was quiet usually in the late afternoon, as the sweet fruit aroma would eventually make us sleepy. Velvet-skinned Blenheim apricots have a distinctive perfume that is heady stuff on a hot day in a cutting shed. I might have eaten almost as many perfectly dead-ripe cots as I cut. Peak seasons record 200,000 tons of apricots picked in this area, much of it going to nearby canning factories and laid out on weathered shallow trays for sun-drying.

that's the pit bucket on the slatted tray

Moving up to Skyline Blvd above Santa Clara Valley in 1970, my cottage had an array of long untended garden items. The side yard was terraced for vegetable gardening. It was my beginning gardening years. I set to work cleaning away the weeds to see what I had. Old fashioned violets, a mulberry tree (ravaged each year by the birds), and the withered old Concord grape vine that lived over the gate and fence. I pulled out the Sunset garden book, took my beloved pruning shears, and one day set to work nipping and snipping. I had no idea if I was doing it right, but it looked far more tidy when I was done. In the spring, the leaves were dense and soon the budding bundles of baby green grapes appeared, to my delight. By fall, I had loads of blue black grapes, far more than I could eat. Since Concords have seeds, they are a bit of a hassle to work with. You have to deal with the seeds to get to that teaspoon of fruit, which makes a Concord grape pie a real labor of love. My landlady Barbie had this big pot called a Safter. It was a quite ugly ulitarian metal double boiler from Germany for juicing. I am sure she still has it since it was made to last forever. I loaded up the grapes in the perforated top section and set the kitchen chair next to the stove. I diverted the rubber hose into a half gallon Mason jar and let the steamed juice drip into the jar. In a few hours, I had a full jar of grape juice ala Welch’s. The next day, I made my first jars of grape jelly. Real grape jelly. And it was perfect. Right down to the paraffin tops.

At the edge of the garden was a quince tree. No one paid any attention to that quince tree. Quince is

the quince stands alone

one of the least used fruits in western countries, perhaps because in its natural state, it’s almost always rock hard and astringent. However, it transforms when sweetened and cooked to this lovely vibrant pink. Quince are usually covered with a gray layer of lint-like fuzz, which can be easily washed off. The most splendid thing you’ll discover when you pick some quince and pile them into a bowl indoors is your kitchen will be filled with the most marvelous rose-and-violet-like aroma imaginable. Fully cooked, however, quinces reveal their most beautiful side and turn a rosy-red hue. Quinces are used to make marmalade, jellies (they have a lot of natural pectin), pies or as additions to apple pies, and are delicious cooked to complement meats. Quinces can also be baked, much the same as apples. The stunning poached quince slices can be served warm or room temperature with some of the cooking liquid, perhaps with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or creme fraiche, or mixed with other poached dried fruits, such as prunes, apricots, sour cherries, or cranberries. The big deal with quince is getting them peeled and cut. They take a really long time to cook, no matter what manner, far longer than apples. I set up the Safter and made quince juice. It took all day to get a full jar of juice. Like 8 hours. But the next day, the jelly was far the best jelly I ever made. Setting it on the table, when the sunlight came in the windows, it lit up the jelly jars like sparkling jeweled hues.

My boyfriend Steve’s parents had a large, sweet cherry tree on the corner of their property in Mountain View. A good yielding cherry tree is a real wealth of fruit. We would look up at that tree while it was ripening and lick our lips in anticipation.  The day would finally come when his dad would pronounce that they were ripe and arrange the old weathered fruit-picker’s ladder, which is wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, against the trunk.  His dad would pick while we waited at the bottom of the ladder, and to his bemused irritation, eating all the cherries as fast as he would pick them.  There is an age-old art to plucking a dangling cherry off its short stem with your lips, manipulating the fruit off the pit in your mouth, then expelling the clean pit out with a short, swift blow. Probably Black Tartarians, they were so dark purple they were bordering on black and almost painfully sweet. Sweet cherries, like Bings, are what you find in Santa Clara Valley. The tart Montmorcey are grown in Michigan. It was a sad day when the tree was too old to bear anymore and had to be removed. Picking and eating fresh cherries is such as joy that it is a sorry state of affairs to have to buy cherries at the supermarket. Some wise and clever fruit grower decided to dry both sweet and tart cherries like a raisin. Along with dried cranberries, dried cherries are an integral part of the American food scene in the last ten years. Make a Waldorf salad with dried cherries instead of raisins and you won’t be sorry. I just sent a bag of dried cherries to a Norwegian friend doing relief work in Nigeria. He ate the entire bag immediately. Its pretty exciting to discover a new food, especially a sweet one.

When I lived with Steve’s parents in the rear cottage, my back door was next to the best lemon tree. It was decades old and hung over the roof. You stepped up onto my little porch which was shaded by that lemon tree. It was a rough-skinned lemon with a nipple on the blossom end. A Eureka. They are a thick skinned, rather pithy lemon with sour juice, but oh so great for lemonaide, lemon curd, lemon tart, and lemon bars. Every fruit pie needs a squeeze of lemon to balance the inherent fruit sweetness if the fruit is not tart to begin with. I made my first batch of candied lemon peel with these lemons. My recipe was featured in Family Circle magazine. You never see Eureka lemons in stores, as they are a home fruit tree. I would get the fruit picking ladder, steady it on the slatted roof and pick the lemons. I always had a large basket of lemons on my kitchen floor. When I visited my parents for Sunday supper, I always brought a bag of lemons. It wasn’t until I moved that I realized no more lemons. The store bought are a totally different variety. I still miss being able to use lemon in everything.

just the look of this lemon says home to me

On the other side of my porch, my landlord planted his favorite fruit. The Black Mission fig. He was possessive about the fruit and would eye the growing fruit with anticipation. In the summer the uber-large, deeply lobed fig leaves shaded and cooled the entire side of the cottage. The tree is known for this cooling quality and being native to the Middle East, a coveted shade tree for animals and humans alike. If you see those nude Roman and Greek paintings and frescos from centuries ago, fig leaves are the modesty garb. I picked lots of those leaves for lining catering cheese trays and decorating the tables. They are evocatively beautiful. I had a chaise lounge and laid under the fig tree, so it was like a friend it was so familiar. The tree is deciduous, so all the leaves drop in the winter, leaving this silver-grey bark exposed and branches decoratively winding this way and that to the sky. The fig is an ancient fruit. Man has been noshing on figgys as long as time immemorial. It is one of the first cultivated fruits, in Mesopotania, and is considered the birth source of agriculture. So much for wheat, barley, and legumes, which are all timed at cultivating a full thousand years later. Buddha achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree, a knarled sacred fig tree, which is still alive today. The fig is a strange fruit. It is really the hollow end of the branch stem. The flower blooms inside, invisible, so the flower and seeds are one. The fruit is pollinated by one particular fig wasp, who enters the fruit thru the narrow hole at the end, so it is kinda a love affair.

Over the fence was George and Mitzi’s backyard. In the center was a large persimmon tree. Another deciduous tree that is filled with gloriously large leaves in spring and summer, and then naked stems to the sky all winter. It really makes a statement when the passionate-colored orbs are the only thing on the limbs like Christmas ornaments. When the persimmons are hanging there, it is the signal Thanksgiving is coming soon. Their tree was a Fuyu variety, the oval crunchy-like-an-apple fruit. Really pretty, too. Made for a nice bowl of fruit on the kitchen table as a decoration as they never got soft enough to rot. I knew what to do with the gelatinous Hachiya, which was the ingredient in steamed persimmon pudding, soft persimmon hermit cookies, and Granny’s persimmon spice cake, but what to do with the Fuyu? It is a fruit eaten raw and I started using it in fruit salads and jello molds for catering. It was a raging success. Mitzi liked the Fuyu in a mixed fall fruit salad with Cool Whip on top. Most years the tree was so abundant that all the neighbors got bags of Fuyus. There were always a few years when the tree took a rest and bore only a handful of fruit. Such is the mystery of nature.

Steve’s grandparents had this remarkable backyard. They picked the lot special since it was the biggest when they moved from San Francisco to Saratoga, which butted up against the foothills. It was a triangular corner lot and and it was fence to fence fruit trees, vegetables, flowers, and berry bushes. Grampy took me out one day to pick the blackberries. I was in a lot of pain with the piercing of my fingertips by the long thin thorns. There is a sort of mantra that goes with berry picking: “Oh, scratches are a PART of blackberry picking, that’s why they taste so good!” Grampy, whose fingertips were calloused from decades of home farming, would look up with a small smile on his face, and said to me, “don’t worry, you will forget the pain soon when you eat them.” Granny waited inside to rinse them clean and pile into little dessert bowls and then we poured fresh cream over the berries and let them fridge-chill until after our omelettes. Granny also made jam and jelly from these, currants, and raspberries, which were a loving treat. We used to go there every Sunday for brunch and I always left with bags full of whatever vegetable and fruit were in season plus some home canned item and an armful of flowers like zinnias. If it was a good year, everyone in the family got a jar of the limited edition currant-raspberry jelly for Christmas, as well as a tin of Granny’s jelly cookies, with the plop of jelly in the center of the butter cookie.

the wicked berry patch

Granny and Grampy also had three apple trees on the side of the house. They were very protected by the house on one side and the high fence on the other. It was like a little apple incubator with the summer heat trapped there. I used to go out back to look for Grampy and not be able to find him in the yard. I would walk around the side and there he was working on the apple trees. Often the fruit laden trees were draped with cotton mesh to keep the birds from slashing at the ripe fruit with their beaks. Picking fruit in the early fall, raking leaves in winter, carefully pruning to keep the trees a nice and tidy size, and inspecting the blossoms in spring. That was the apple calendar year. I would stand and look up into the boughs and Grampy would tell me gardening stories. Often he had a bandana tied over his bald head and looked sort of like an aged gypsy. He nurtured those apple trees like they were children, so they were in good hands.

There were tons of peach trees when I moved to Santa Clara Valley with my family in 1962. So many we really took them for granted. Especially loved were the delicate white peaches that dotted the back yards. I had a friend who had a few trees and would invite me over to pick up a paper grocery bag full of them. Best eaten raw out of hand, I still made pies and crisps, but packed the excess peeled sliced peaches in clean half gallon milk cartons for storage in the freezer. White peaches are for canning, not for jam. My Nanny Hensperger always had jars of white peach halves down the cellar. She would take me down and hold back the floral cloth that covered the old shelf that was full of her canned goods. It was always a treat to look forward to when she allowed me to pick what jar to serve for dessert. Yellow peaches make the jam and pies. As the years went by, there was a peach blight in the valley that in the next decade wiped out all the peach trees. If you loved peaches, you had to plant a new tree and wait a few years for the first fruits.

The history of the French prune plum coincides with the history of this valley.  French nurseryman Louis Pellier settled in the southern part of the valley in 1859, bringing with him the much loved D’Agen plum with his belongings from Bordeaux, a fruit which is still featured in so many tasty French recipes.

One early evening Steve and I headed down to see a movie at the newly opened big screen Century Movie Theatre on Winchester Boulevard.  We were an hour early for the movie, so we drove a few blocks over the freeway and parked in a prune orchard to wait under the shade of the trees.  There we sat and ate ripe, slightly wrinkled, golden-fleshed prune plums off the trees, finding it hard to stop even after eating our fill.  We declared them the best we ever had, our faces, fingers, and the steering wheel good and sticky from all the juice.  A good plum must be one of the culinary world’s true luxuries and the entire prune industry is based on that French plum. Some of the best one-layer eat-out-of-the-pan cakes I make now, known as kuchen in German, are with fresh plums settled into the top (look for the Fruit Kuchen recipe in my Quick Breads book).

stone fruit have one center pit

The best-producing plums trees are grafted, a fact learned when I lived in the shade of what we thought was just a plum tree on Fremont Avenue in Los Altos Hills, then the middle of the orchards.  There are many varieties of mid-summer plums, all maturing at different times.  This unforgettable, almost magical, tree first produced crimson-fleshed Santa Rosas, whose purple-red skin must be the prototype for the color “plum.”  When they were gone, a pale yellow-green one with yellow flesh, a greengage (known as a Reine Claude to the French), appeared.  Then the last batch was a very large, blue-black plum, probably a Friar or Nubiana.  Each ripening was a surprise and each plum tasted, as well as looked, totally different from the next. In competition with the birds, we ate every one.

Then there was the meltingly delicious summer pear, the Bartlett, named for Enoch Bartlett of Massachusetts.  Brought from England where it is known as the William, pears fared better in our western climate than New England.  Steve and I would drive over to Trimble Road off Highway 101, a favorite site for dirt bikers, and forage for the fruit left on the trees after the pickers went through.  It was like trespassing into a foreign land. The quiet orchard had that faint musky pear aroma and the fruit had developed little russet dots and a trace of rosy blush on the yellow skin.  We’d have to be careful with the large ovals, as they were ripening on the tree and might be bruised or too soft.  Pears like to be picked while still under-ripe (pears ripen from the inside out and the cells change when left on the tree, making that mealy texture), but there would still be enough so I would have a nice batch for home-canning and apple-pear sauce. This area now is all commercial real estate and the soil black-topped over.

One of my favorite pastimes used to be to look for vacant lots with bearing fruit trees still standing

brentwood california

and head over in the evening to pick the unwanted fruit, stepping carefully on tiptoes amidst fallen fruit rotting on the ground. I made countless jars of wonderful jam, ice cream, canned fruit, pies, crisps, and cakes from those nefarious pickings. I would sit outside in the afternoon on an old wooden chair with a TV tray and cut and pit the fruit listening to the birds. Now its just the stuff of memories.

Without a vacant lot in sight, there is still great fruit grown in the spirit of the early Santa Clara Valley available at farmer’s markets, but the seasons are usually short and sweet.


Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2017

Please enjoy the recipes and make them your own. If you copy the recipes and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

Your Comments

3 comments Comments Feed
  1. Judith 08/11/2009 at 4:10 pm

    Could you tell me please how to make a bread machine recipe larger? My machine makes 2, 2.5 & 3 lb loaf sizes. Is there a formula?

  2. Beth 18/11/2009 at 4:55 am

    I am assuming that you mean that recipes are usually written for a 2-pound loaf in the bread machine and you want to increase to a 3-pound loaf. First, not knowing the machine you own, I have to give you some general answers. Refer to your manufacturer’s booklet that accompanied your machine when you bought it. Look at the recipes and find a recipe similar to the one you wish to make. Use that recipe as a guide to increasing your proportions. Most bread recipes are quite similar. To practice, start with something simple, like a white bread or whole wheat bread that will be baked in the machine. You will also need to get familiar with the way your machine works. Second, to go from a 2- to 3-pound loaf, you will divide the 2-pound proportions in half and add that to the original 2-pound loaf. In essence you are increasing the proportions by half again to make a 3-pound loaf. Of course if you are using the dough cycle, as long as you don’t exceed the total flour and liquid amount for the 3-pound loaf as designated in your recipe booklet, you can do any amount on dough cycle and bake outside the machine, such as for pizza dough. You will need to write your new recipes down in the margins of your cookbook so as to be able to recreate them again if they are successful and not have to recalculate all over again. In any brand machine, the best rule for a bread baker is practice. Good Luck. BH

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