Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Cutting 'Cots in the Santa Clara Valley: A Guest Post at Apricot Time in California
Robin writes: The scent of the apricots is what I remember best. That, and the first taste of a sweet, warm 'cot, sun kissed and right off the tree. The Santa Clara Valley, just south of San Francisco, is one of the few places in the world where this rare fruit grows to perfection. And though many of the old trees are gone, some remain. Here, as the 'cots ripen and ready for picking, my friend from childhood, Lisa Gutt Arnold, looks back at the joys of growing up in the shade of her family's apricot trees.
Lisa Gutt Arnold
The fruit of Prunus armeniaca, like the plum and peach, is a stone fruit, or, as Archibald MacLeish would say, “globed.” It is self-pollinating and sets after white flowers blossom. Formerly considered a native of the Caucasus and Armenia (hence the species name armeniaca), current studies suggest that India is its country of origin.
Brought to California by the mission fathers in the early eighteenth century, the apricot tree now graces California hillsides, loving the temperate climate and living from 50 to 100 years.
Our apricot orchard on Summerhill Avenue in Los Altos Hills was small: thirty-two trees dotting the hillside behind and above our home. As a child I imagined the trees to be an army of men protecting my family. With stiff, bowed arms they undressed in winter and wore the lace of their betrothed in spring. When they came full fruit they were transformed magically into trees, their gray, rough bark contrasting with the bright green, heart-shaped foliage tinged with red.
An army of apricot trees marching down the hillside on the property of the Packard Foundation in Los Altos Hills.
As it ripened, the furred fruit seemed to dance, exuding a fragrance reminiscent of the blossoms. In late June, when the heat began to rise early in the day, our mother would pluck just enough fruit to bake apricot nut bread or pie (which we served instead of cake at my wedding on the summer solstice). After the first flush of harvest, we began to pick the fruit in earnest.
When all the fruit is a soft orange color it is ready to pick.
My father returned from the hillside with buckets of fruit, pouring the ‘cots onto a wooden tray. My siblings and I sat at each of the corners, taking knife in one hand and fruit in the other. Finding the golden seam in the center, we cut in one gesture around the curve. Succulent juice rose from the pores as we tossed away the stone. Setting each half on the tray, we watched our own triangle of cut fruit grow to meet the others.
For the tray to be a success, each ‘cot must touch another on every side. The feng shui of the tray slowed the passage of time. Our mother, watching from the kitchen window, brought us cold drinks as we shifted to sit under the shade of the mulberry tree. Closing in on the space in the middle of the tray, we left it for Mom to place the vital centerpiece, the largest of the ‘cots.
After a tray was complete, Dad carried it to the hillside. When all the fruit was cut (about 200 pounds), Dad set up the sulphur house, sliding the trays inside. Then he lit a can of sulphur that burned all night. The fumes of sulphur dioxide circulating inside killed any parasites. In the morning Dad removed the trays and set a ladder beside the house.
We helped him carry the trays to the roof where the apricots lay to dry, exposed to the sky night and day. After a week the ‘cots were ready to eat, shriveled in size, shape, and weight, but sweeter than a robin’s song.
Lisa Gutt Arnold
Bainbridge Island, Washington