JERRY PIPITONE, of Pipitone Farms on Rock Island, has been a fan of apricots since he was 10. His family picked up a box of them at a roadside stand on a trip to California.
Pipitone turns 80 this summer, but you’ll still find him during the short apricot season (late June to mid-July) at the U-District and West Seattle farmers markets, his table filled with the delicate sunset-hued orbs.
He’s been growing organic apricots since the mid-’80s, when a patch of land he leased came with an orchard complete with acres of apricot trees. Over the years, he has become legendary for his apricots — and even grows one named for him: an experimental variety, never widely released, called the Pipicot.
Now, if you’re not big into apricots, you might not know what the fuss is all about. I was there once, too. Then I took a wild 40-hour road trip to Corning, California, with my friend Bev in search of California’s sweetest fruit, the Blenheim apricot. They’re about the size of a golf ball, a blushing orange that exudes a sugary sweetness. I must’ve eaten a handful before I wondered whether I really should be eating apricots like they were cherries. That was nearly a decade ago, and I’ve been hooked since.
You can’t find Blenheims in Washington, but we’ve got many other varieties that are just as good. Apricots are total people-pleasers in that there is a variety for everyone — firm-fleshed, tart, sweet, ooey-gooey — they’ve got it all. Most are wonderful eaten fresh, but any kind of apricot turned into jam, grilled, poached or baked in a galette is pure heaven.
Of Pipitone’s five varieties, the Rilands (a contraction of Rock Island, where his farm is) are his favorite.
“There’s not one good market characteristic about a Riland,” he says with a chuckle, telling me he always has to sell them, “but I only have to sell them once.”
See, market characteristics don’t ever account for flavor. “You don’t taste things in the store,” Pipitone says.
Unlike many oval or plum-shaped apricots, Rilands are on the round side — shaped more like a peach — and instead of that sunshine yellow, they’ve got a “really nice dark-orange coloring,” Pipitone says.
Instead of firm, smooth flesh, they’ve got a bit of fuzz, and are on the “ooey-gooey-gushy” side, according to Pipitone.
The flavor, as he describes it, is an “old-fashioned deep, deep apricot flavor. Not exceptionally sweet.” It’s his preferred varietal for jam, the end result being like sweet, syrupy sunshine. Wonderful on toast, even better on ice cream.
The other varietals Pipitone sells are Pipicots, Tomcots, Rivals and Tiltons.
You’re most likely to see Tomcots at the grocery store; it’s a common, all-around good apricot. Tiltons are an old variety — 125 years old, according to Pipitone — and they are one of the best apricots for canning. The Pipicots are the first ones to make an appearance at market. Pipitone says those are “gone in a flash,” because they’re so sweet.
They all ripen at different stages; early season apricots are the Tomcots, Pipicots and Rivals — which Pipitone calls an “excellent” variety. Midseason are the Rilands. The Tiltons are the last variety to come on for Pipitone, although he cautions that he is earlier than many other apricot farmers at the market, and it’s common to see apricots through the end of July.
While it’s wonderful to poach apricots with cardamom or mix them with a little vanilla, sugar and butter for tarte Tatin, if you really want to capture sunshine, make apricot jam.
In his prime, Pipitone would dry 10 to 15 tons of apricots a year, and turn hundreds of pounds into jam, but now it’s mostly for personal use. And even though you’ll still be able to get the occasional bag of dried apricots or jar of jam from him, your best bet is to make your own. It’s true: Jam can be a labor of love, especially in the heat of the summer, when you’re standing over a bubbling pot of apricots and sugar, waiting for it to achieve the perfect thickness. But your future self will thank you, especially in December, when sunshine seems so far away.
Recipe adapted from Bev Mazzola
Yield: about 4 8-ounce jars of jam
3 pounds ripe apricots
2 to 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice (optional)
1. Wash and dry apricots. Slice in half and remove seeds, reserving four seeds for the jars of jam. Place apricots in a large, deep pot with heavy bottom. Pour sugar over apricots and let stand for a few hours to macerate.
2. Place a small plate in the freezer. Bring mixture to boil over medium heat, uncovered. Reduce heat to low and continue to boil gently for one hour, stirring frequently to ensure the jam doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot or scorch. After one hour, put small amount of preserves on the frozen plate, and push through the jam with your finger. If the fruit wrinkles and doesn’t flood in behind your finger, it’s ready. If not, or if you like a thicker, almost syrup-y jam, continue to cook up to one additional hour. Taste when finished; add lemon juice if desired, and place one apricot kernel in each jar of finished jam. Process into sterilized jars if desired, or simply pour into glass jars and refrigerate. Jam will keep for one month in the fridge but can also be frozen.