Why we love apricots

Selling fruit at markets, as we do, we hear lots of stories and memories about fruit, and apricots seem to have a special place in people’s hearts. An apricot tree has been common in backyards since way back when, and lots of people have special memories of the smell and taste of eating sweet, ripe apricots on a hot summer’s day, whether they were visiting Grandma, or pinching fruit from the neighbour’s place. Here’s a bit about why we love apricots.

fresh apricots in a box

Though their proper name is Prunus armeniaca, apricots probably come from in China rather than Armenia; the earliest known writings about apricots are from the time of the emperor Yu, around 2200 BC, and some sources say they were known in India in 3000 BC. It gives a whole new twist to the notion of “heritage” fruit, doesn’t it?

There are dozens of different varieties of apricots. We grow 11 at our place (and are adding more all the time), chosen because they ripen consecutively, which gives us ripe apricots from late Spring right through until mid-Summer. Our varieties, in order of ripening are:

Poppicot:
A
lively flavoured sweet apricot with tart skin, which ripens to a lovely strong-flavoured apricot

poppicot
Poppicot

Earlicot:
A large apricot, can be a bit prone to cracking and deformities on some trees in some seasons, but ripens well on the tree and has a good flavour

earlicot apricot
Earlicot

Katy:
A large, egg-shaped apricot, can crack easily in the rain, but wonderful intense flavour when ripe, a really special apricot

katy apricot
Katy

Castlebrite:
A medium to large apricot, brightly coloured, quite sweet. Castlebrite are a good, reliable apricot, not very strong in flavour but nice for eating and jam. They start sweetening up on the tree as they start looking ripe, and hang well and continue to ripen without being too prone to falling off. Trees are very vulnerable to blossom blight, and the fruit can be prone to brown rot.

castlebrite apricot
Castlebrite

Bebeco:
A medium to small, round pale apricot with firm texture, and delicious intense apricot flavour. They ripen well on the tree and are not inclined to fall off easily. Tend to be a very spreading tree.

bebeco apricot
Bebeco

Goldrich:
A dark orange apricot, which is very sour when it first turns orange and starts to look ripe, but develops intense flavour and sweetness if left to ripen on the tree for another week or two. An apricot that really needs taste testing before picking to ensure sugars have properly developed. Great eaten fresh, and good for bottling, but makes a very dark jam.

Goldrich apricot
Goldrich

Rival:
One of our favourite all-purpose apricots, they sweeten early on the tree, hang well and are good for eating, preserving and drying. They are also a reliable cropper, and not particularly vulnerable to disease. Our best recommendation for a backyard tree.

rival apricot
Rival

Patterson:
A popular variety world-wide, but new for us, so we can’t tell you anything about it yet!

patterson apricot
Patterson

Trevatt:
An old-fashioned favourite, a slightly flattened, very sweet, pale orange apricot that ripens from the inside, so they are sweet and delicious to eat even when they look a bit green. Trevatt are very soft textured, and make fantastic jam, but lose their shape immediately when cooked, so not great for bottling.

Beautiful Trevatt apricot
Trevatt

Moorpark:
Another old favourite with a distinctive flavour, darker colour and firmer flesh than Trevatt, Moorpark are a late apricot, and not a good cropper in our climate, but are highly prized for their sweetness. Prone to freckle, which is a skin disease that affects the look of the fruit, but not the taste.

Moorpark apricot in box
Moorpark

Tilton:
Another new variety in our orchard, we haven’t tried them yet, and are looking forward to eating the first ones this season. They’re the latest to ripen, so hopefully will extend the season.

tilton apricot
Tilton

Apricot trees are very vigorous, and are usually grafted onto plum rootstocks (or occasionally peach). They can grow into massive trees, and are absolutely gorgeous in spring when they’re covered with fragrant pink and white blossom.

They’re fabulously good for you, both your health (high in fibre, vitamins A & C, and masses of antioxidants), and apparently also your love life – according to Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Apricot kernels have been used as a cancer treatment since at least the 17th century and are still available in many health food shops for this purpose, though modern science is conflicted about whether it actually works. The kernels contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous in large doses but fine in small doses, and in fact gives a lovely marzipan flavour if the kernels are cooked with the jam.

apricot blossom, bee, pollination

Apricots can be really tricky to grow because they need a very specific climate to produce fruit. They need a cold winter for the fruit to set, but are tragically sensitive to frost in spring, which can damage both the flowers and small fruit. They also need warm conditions in spring and summer because they ripen so early.

One of the main reasons we love apricots is because we can grow them! Our farm has just the right combination of cold winters and hot summers, and the huge advantage of being almost frost free.

Sadly, they’re also prone to fungal diseases, especially blossom blight and brown rot, as well as gummosis. They’re usually pruned in late summer or early autumn, while the weather is still warm, to help prevent spread of disease.

apricot, disease, blossom blight

As well as pruning, the other main maintenance job with apricots is fruit thinning in spring, because they’re a bugger for biennial bearing (heavy crop one year, followed by a light crop the next year), and thinning breaks the cycle, but the trick is, you have to do it every year!

young apricots

They sound like hard work, don’t they? They’re probably the fruit tree we hear the most complaints about, but in fact with the right climate, the right pruning, good hygiene, organic fungicides and good pest control, it’s quite possible to keep your apricot tree healthy and bearing well (really, trust us!).

All that hard work of getting a crop is sooooo worth it, because apricots are  wonderfully versatile. If you’re lucky enough to get a glut, they make delicious jam, and lend themselves to preserving and drying. With a little work in the kitchen, you can capture those delicious memories of eating fragrant ripe apricots straight from the tree to enjoy all year.

dried apricots

Fixing the world’s problems with vegetables

 

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One of the reasons we do what we do – grow organic fruit and teach other people how to do the same – is because we reckon it’s time that we all re-learn how to grow food. It’s a practical solution to the problem of food security we think our kids might be facing in the future.

Oil is getting scarce (and expensive), soil fertility is going down, food is getting more expensive, and we’re so reliant on global food systems (and factory farming) that we’re very vulnerable to global problems, like oil shortages, transport problems or disease outbreaks. Did you know that it would probably only take our supermarkets 3 or 4 days to run out of food in an emergency? Doesn’t sound very secure to us.

We want our kids (and everyone else’s!) to have access to affordable organic food, so growing vegies is the obvious answer – as well as growing your own fruit, of course!

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Taking vegie growing to the street – a wicking bed outside the ‘Hub Plot’ garden, on Templeton Street in Castlemaine

However, though we’ve always had a vegie garden at home, we’re not very experienced vegie growers (we’ve never grown enough to sell, for example). So we just love community resources like the ‘Hub Plot’ garden in Castlemaine, a demonstration garden set up to teach people simple techniques for growing their own food in the backyard.

We dropped in for a visit the other day. It’s a gorgeous garden, full of good ideas. Want a virtual tour?

The garden has lots of different types of garden beds, with a big emphasis on wicking beds, which are lined garden beds with a refillable reservoir of water underneath the soil (the white pipe you can see sticking up is where you put the hose in to refill the bed). The water ‘wicks’ up into the soil (like wax moving up a candle wick), so the plants get watered from below. They save heaps of water, so they’re a great idea for dry climates like ours.

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Square foot garden wicking bed (made in an old apple bin, a perfect size and height for the purpose).
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A mini-wicking bed, perfect for a small space or balcony, and an easy way to keep yourself in herbs and greens for salads.

And here’s a board explaining how a wicking bed is made (if you click on the photo you’ll get an enlarged copy):

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Here’s two more wicking beds – the corrugated iron bed in the background, and a converted wine barrel in front.

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Here’s the wine barrel from above, with a healthy citrus tree. We’ve had a similar wicking bed for years in our garden with a lime tree, in a sheltered spot, and it absolutely thrives with very minimal attention from us!20131102_111237

Of course one of the most important part of any garden is the compost, because that’s where a lot of the natural fertility comes from, and it’s also the easiest way to recycle all your garden waste (it’s so crazy taking garden waste to the tip). The Hub Plot has a few different systems on display, including a ‘bay’ system, with pipes inserted into one of the bays to make sure plenty of air can get in to stop it turning into a sludgy mess:20131102_110309

Worms are (in effect) another type of composting system, and we loved this innovative idea, using a simple plastic perforated basket that you’d pick up anywhere for a couple of dollars. You bury the basket in your vegie bed so the top is just above the soil level. Pop some food scraps inside and voila! An instant on-the-spot fertiliser factory. Brilliant!

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An in-bed worm farm. Put the food in the basket, and keep it covered with a tile to keep most of the rain out (worms don’t like too much water).

Of course, we couldn’t resist taking a look inside the worm basket, and this is what we found….some half eaten food scraps, and loads of worms, munching their way through them (you can see the worms if you enlarge the photo). The holes in the side of the basket let the worms come and go into the soil, so they visit the basket for lunch, then go back to the vegie bed and distribute the goodies!

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The beauty of worm farms is they can be whatever size you like, from this tiny basket up to a bathtub, or even bigger. On the farm we use an old apple bin, because we generate lots of organic waste, and we use lots of worm castings to make compost tea.

Of course another great way to convert waste to productivity is to have a few chooks, and we thought the ‘Chook Mahal’ was completely gorgeous…

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It particularly appealed that the laying boxes have an externally opening door, so you can collect the eggs without having to go into the chook shed. The golf ball was a pretty cute idea too, just to remind the girls of where to do their business!

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The chooks do a brilliant job of converting food scraps and garden waste into eggs, as well as manure, which then gets added to the compost system. This way all the nutrients stay within the garden and get re-used, over and over again. The chooks look pretty healthy and happy with the system….

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One of the things we don’t have in our garden at the farm, but would love, is a greenhouse, so we made sure to get a photo of these instructions for how the Hub Plot greenhouse was built. It’s definitely on our ‘to-do’ list….

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A fantastic space-saving idea, this herb spiral is an example of vertical gardening, and also rather beautiful, don’t you think?

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An espaliered apple tree, another way of getting more productivity out of a small space.

It was late spring when we visited the garden, and most of the beds were full of lush herbs and vegies….divine!

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Plump broad beans ready to harvest, with borage in the background

 

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Healthy, green parsley just begging to be eaten!

 

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Leeks and a variety of other greens in one of the wicking beds.

The Hub Plot is part of the Mt Alexander Sustainability Group, and we think they’re fantastic. They have a Monday morning gardening group where you can join in and get some practical skills, and they run all sorts of interesting workshops and activities. Click here to go to their website if you want more of a look.

From the archive: From the chookhouse to the table

An email this week from Laura, a previous WWOOFer, as well as some interesting food discussions that have been going on in the house with our current WWOOFers about ethical meat (a new concept to them) made us think of this blog post, so we thought it was time to re-publish it.

It’s inspired by one of our very special WWOOFers Laura (from Canada), who first visited our farm in 2011 with sisters Mel and Kirsten from the US. (On a side note, we normally take a maximum of two WWOOFers at a time, and the only reason we accepted three together was because they wrote a rather ridiculous song for their application. We’re very glad we trusted our instincts!)

Laura then returned with her partner Dani last year, and they’re now back in the US, working hard towards their goal of owning their own farm/restaurant/brewery. Laura’s latest letter was full of news about the vegie harvest she just managed at the organic farm she manages, and we were reminded of this amazing meal she shared with us, so we thought we’d share it with you. Hope you enjoy it…

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For a carnivore, learning how to kill your own meat is a very real way to gain appreciation of the food that goes into your mouth. Animals are a crucial part of any permaculture system, having a role in recycling waste food, providing nutrients, contributing to pest control and (when managed properly) having a positive effect on the landscape. They also contribute an important  protein source to our diet, and raising, feeding and slaughtering your own animals is certainly the most ethical way to eat meat.

Led by Laura, who was tired of working with factory farmed chicken in her career as a chef, we recently embarked on a very personal “farmyard to table” journey. One of Laura’s goals while WWOOFing in Australia was to learn how to slaughter meat for herself, so she bought some 6 week old roosters at the Castlemaine Farmers Market. They were penned next to the rest of our flock so they had company, under a beautiful shady cypress tree with a shed for shelter, and fed a plentiful diet of rain-damaged cherries and other fruit, locally grown biodynamic wheat, household scraps and grass and weeds from around the farm.

When the boys were big enough, slaughter day arrived. Laura and Hugh had researched and constructed a killing cone to facilitate a low-stress experience for the roosters. They were up-ended in the cone, their heads pulled down to expose the neck, and the heads removed with one quick and decisive stroke, using a very sharp knife. The cone contained the flapping and involuntary movement, and allowed free drainage of the blood. Everyone that was home attended the slaughter and those that felt comfortable to do so killed a chicken – a challenging but worthwhile experience.

Slaughter day was one of the many rainy days we’ve had recently, so we set up a table in the shed for plucking and gutting. The birds were dipped briefly in hot water to loosen the feathers, then in cold water so they didn’t cook! The water might have been a bit hot at the start, because the first bird we dipped did not pluck easily, and the skin tore when pulling the feathers out, but the others were all ok. There were five of us on the job and five birds, so we took one each. Hugh and Laura showed the rest of us how to remove the feet and gut the birds – it seems difficult until you do it, but is actually quite easy. The birds were then rinsed, and put in the chiller to rest.

Having put many, many hours into menu planning, Laura then embarked on three days of cooking, culminating in the most AMAZING dinner. Here’s the menu:

To do justice to the occasion we surprised Laura with our black-tie glam.

 

The meal we shared was, quite simply, incredible, and so much thought and preparation went into every detail, that we know the foodies amongst you will appreciate having each course fully described, so here goes!

First course, made with the chicken tenders (the part under the chicken breast), was poulet en pappillotte. When these divine little parcels were pierced the most heavenly scent was released, and the julienned cabbage, leek, carrot, capsicum and ginger in the parcel with the chicken were tender and delicious. A wonderful dish that started the evening with a tantalizing taste of what was to come.

 

The creamy mushroom soup for second course was a simple soup made from the tastiest chicken stock you could imagine, with the addition only of cream, mushrooms and a little crunchy bacon. It was accompanied by crispy toast with a most delicious pate made from the chickens’ livers.

 

The next dish was a thoughtful blend of flavours and textures that came together to make a perfect dish! Chicken confit (the tenderest, most tasty chicken that had been slow cooked in butter) was combined with bitter rocket, crunchy fennel, sweet orange segments and a balsamic dressing. It was a taste sensation!

 

The fourth course was, I think, my favourite. A seared chicken breast sat on top of a bed of chicories (radicchio, treviso and little gem lettuces), topped with a poached egg, roasted parsnip and beet slices, and a bagna cauda sauce, made with anchovies, garlic and butter. This was such a delicious blend of flavours that I must admit to licking the plate, and had to be restrained from licking everyone else’s plates as well! Though each dish was quite small we were starting at this point to feel extremely well fed…but we moved on…

 

The last of the savoury dishes was a masterpiece. One of the roosters was older than the others, and consequently had a darker and gamier meat. Laura made a feature of the extra flavour of the meat by cooking it with brown butter and marjoram, and using it to stuff pierogie – Polish dumplings made to a recipe handed down in her family from her Polish grandmother. The pierogie were presented on a smear of herbed sour cream and accompanied by caramelized onion, Lambert cherries, toasted almonds and a balsamic reduction.  This was extraordinary food!

 

One of Laura’s aims was to incorporate chicken into each course, and her creative solution for the dessert course was to use crispy honey chicken skin as a garnish for her white nectarine jello confection that included ginger, coconut, orange cream and tuille – a beautifully moulded thin biscuit on the side. This sweet but light concoction was offset with an orange reduction and a cherry reduction (“why use one sauce when you can use two?”) and was the perfect way to finish a perfect meal.

This was the sort of meal that most ordinary mortals might get to experience only a few times in their lifetime, and we felt privileged that Laura provided this experience for us. She assures us it was also a huge treat and a great experience for her!!

To be involved with buying, feeding and slaughtering the animals and then to be present at the dinner was a special experience for our family, along with our wwoofers Melissa, Kirsten and Laura. Laura clearly has an incredible talent for designing and executing beautifully balanced dishes, but she also has a passion to further pursue the connection from farm to table in her future career, which we are going to watch with great interest!