Western Daily Press
June 23, 2012 Saturday
Edition 1; National Edition

The fruits of ancient China's labour

They may make the perfect jam, but there is so much more you can do
with apricots, says Chris Rundle

I asked the cider maker, on his farm just outside Laval, which types
of apple he used, expecting a long list of ancient and half-forgotten

He shrugged. Just two, he said: les précoces (the early-fruiting sort)
and les tardives (the late-fruiting kind). Which simplified the whole
process, pretty much, I supposed.

"Précoce" means precocious and there is one fruit above all the others
that is precocious not only by name but in nature. It's a distant
relative of the rose, its skin, with that distinctive reddish tinge,
is one of the prettiest on the shelves and it's known - in regions
where it is most at home - for appearing early in the season.

So impressed were the Romans by this trait that they indeed named it
"praecocium", from which we get the modern name of apricot. Which was
a lot more accurate than the Greeks who, believing it came from there
referred to it as Armenian plum - "armeniaca" survives in its
botanical name.

But in fact you have to look a lot further than Armenia to discover
the origins of the fruit that makes one of the most delicious jams
ever to emerge from a preserving pan. For it was the Chinese who first
began to cultivate one of their native wild fruits, probably back
around 2,000BC, and silk traders who brought it west to the Middle
East and Mediterranean by the first century AD.

It took another 500 years for English gardeners to have a crack at
producing apricots in a climate which was hardly designed for them,
with the greatest success perhaps notched up in the 18th century when
Lord Anson perfected a variety named after his Hertfordshire home,
Moor Park, which was eventually commercialised, exported to other
European countries and is widely grown today.

Across the great apricot growing belt of the Middle East, a staggering
number of varieties are grown, of all shapes and pretty much all
colours, and even in southern Europe you will find types which rarely,
if ever, appear in the shops here.

Around Nyons, the capital of the olive industry down in the Drome, the
region just north of Provence, they specialise in apricots the size of
tennis balls, for instance - and memorably sweet and juicy they are,
too. Meanwhile, the number of ways in which apricots are prepared
virtually defies any attempt at comprehensive listing. The Chinese
smoke them, in South Africa the fruits are salted, pressed and
part-dried for storage in jars with layers of sugar between them. And,
of course, confectioners everywhere highly value apricot jam as a
glaze for tarts and pastries. The problem for us, of course, is that
apricots are really only at their best when perfectly ripe and just
harvested. And even in the relatively few hours it takes them to reach
our shops that moment of perfection rapidly passes.

But it's still worth buying them fresh, rather than dried, if you
fancy a spot of jam-making, particularly if you can find them at a
reasonable price. Just for a change you could have a crack at apricot
butter, a confection not dissimilar to lemon curd, which is excellent
as a filling for sponges and pastries, while apricot leather is a
traditional Turkish method of preserving: the sheets are broken up and
melted with a little water when required for cooking but would
equally, cut into strips, be ideal for inclusion in your child's lunch
box. And the tagine recipe demonstrates the wonderful culture of sweet
and sour cookery of North Africa.

Apricot butter Ingredients 1.2kg fresh ripe apricots; one large
orange; 450ml water; 675g caster sugar; 1 tblspn of butter Method
Place the apricots in a bowl and pour boiling water over to loosen the
skins. Peel and chop them, and place in a heavy pan with three strips
of rind and the juice of the orange, add enough water to just cover
and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the orange rind and blend the fruit
in a processor until smooth. Measure, return to the pan and add 375g
of sugar for every 600g of puree. Heat the mixture until the sugar has
dissolved, then cook at a gentle boil for 20 minutes, stirring to
prevent sticking. Once thick and creamy, remove from heat, stir in the
butter, allow to cool slightly and pour into warmed, sterilised jars.
Cover and store in the fridge for up to six months.

Apricot leather Ingredients 900g ripe apricots; 2 tspns lemon juice; 3
tblspns caster sugar Method Peel and chop the apricots as before and
blend for three minutes with the lemon juice and sugar to form a thick
puree. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment and spread the puree
over it to a depth of about a quarter of an inch, leaving a margin
around the edge. Place in an oven on the lowest setting, with the door
slightly ajar for eight hours, until the puree is dry but still
pliable. Allow to cool, then roll up on the baking sheet and store in
an airtight container for up to three months. To use, unroll, cut into
strips and unpeel from the baking parchment.

Chicken and apricot tagine Ingredients for four One medium, free-range
chicken, jointed; two large onions, chopped; two medium carrots and
two medium courgettes, cut into small dice; one lemon, washed and
quartered; small tin chickpeas, drained; 2 tblspns ras-el-hanout
seasoning; water; sea salt; freshly ground black pepper; 350g fresh
(or dried, presoaked) apricots, quartered; 2 tblspns cooking oil
Method Joint the chicken and season well. Heat the oil in a tagine or
casserole and lightly brown the joints. Add the onions, carrots and
courgettes and cook until slightly softened then stir in the
ras-el-hanout powder, mix well to coat everything, cook for a minute
then add just enough water to almost cover the chicken. Add the lemon,
chickpeas and apricots, cover and simmer for an hour and a quarter.
Check and adjust seasoning, and serve with couscous.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress