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by Margaret E. Walker

Apricot comes from the Latin praecox, or praecoquus, ripened early, coquere, to cook, or ripen; the English form, formerly apricock and abrecox, comes through the French abricot, or the Spanish. albaricoque, which was an adaptation of abic ai-burquk.

When I was a small child of four or five years of age I thought that our small apricot tree had something magical about it. We lived in the South Australian town of Murray Bridge, and although my mother did not have a lot of time for gardening she treasured her apricot tree.

Covered with blossoms, it looked as though it was covered with tiny little fairies in white dresses, and when the new leaves appeared they were a soft translucent green tinged with bronze and I thought they looked as though they could be the wings of elves. I would just hold my hand, palm up, under the leaves and hope that instead of just leaves I would see an elf on my hand.

Growing from a child to an adult is like the slow ripening of fruit, and that is the image that gave us precocious. The word is based on the Latin verb coquere, meaning "to ripen" or "to cook," but it comes most directly from the adjective praecox, which means "ripening early or before its time." The Latin word was first used to describe plants and fruits, but later also to describe a child who is unusually mature at an early age. Precocity can occasionally be annoying; but precocious children do not come precooked, only "preripened."


How Apricots Grow

Eventually of course the flowers turned into tiny little green fruit, similar in shape to little almonds, which is not surprising, since the apricot is from the same genus as the almond, genus Prunus Armeniaca. The two fruits are similar when they are in miniature, but when they are fully developed the outer green coating of the almond, dries and eventually drops to the ground, leaving the shell to dry, whereas the outer covering of the apricot kernel begins to round out and the colour turns from a soft green to yellowy green, to buttery yellow with a pink blush, to golden apricot. The colour transformation takes about two to three weeks, with the fruit ripening on the top of the tree first.

Making Apricot Jam

Each summer we would pick the golden fruit and my mother would make jam to put into the pantry, as well as apricot pies and stewed apricots to eat with ice cream. I can recall sitting at the kitchen table, the kitchen window wide open to allow some cool air to enter the hot kitchen, as we cut each fruit in half and took out the stone. The fruit was weighed and placed into my mother's large jam pan, which incidentally I still have, although it has a small hole in the bottom.

The jam pan would then be placed onto the primus stove at a very low temperature, and the fruit was stirred constantly until the juice had begun to run, and to prevent the fruit from sticking to the base of the pan and burning. When the apricots were cooked down to a pulp we would add the sugar and raise the heat to a strong simmer, and using a very long handled wooden spoon, stir constantly to prevent sticking once again until it had reached the setting point.

My mother would place two saucers into the refrigerator to chill them, and then to test the jam she would put a small amount of jam onto the cold china. Fifteen minutes prior to the end of cooking we would add a few blanched apricot kernels. My brother would have had the job of cracking the apricot stones to get the little white kernels. He would sit on the stone step at the back door, and, using my father's hammer, gently tap each stone to just crack it open, though not so hard that the whole thing was crushed. When he had obtained enough kernels, mum would pour hot water over them in a bowl. After a few minutes the brown skin would split and we would extract the shiny white kernel, which if chewed was extremely bitter, but added an interesting flavour to the jam. In fact some people use almonds in Apricot jam instead of the apricot kernels, as they also have a slightly bitter flavour.

If after a few minutes the jam had a fine skin on the surface the setting point had been reached, the stove turned off and the jam filled into sterilized jars. The jars were covered with clear cellophane covers and fastened with a rubber band. As a contrast, I can remember my grandmother covering her jam with brown paper that had been dipped into vinegar. The vinegar acted as a sterilising agent for the paper, and would also prevent moulds from entering the jam through the porous paper. As rubber bands were not easy to come by during war-time she would fasten the paper with white kitchen string and tie it tightly.

Grandma's pantry, on one side of her laundry, was full of colour. She had carrot jam, apricot jam and tomato jam on her shelves, as well as preserved apricots and peaches in jars, along with pickled onions.

The smell was simply wonderful, as the aromas of the various preserves escaped through the brown paper covers, and added to the aroma of foods that assailed the nose of any visitor to her home. With the plastic lined, metal lids of today, there is no wonderful aroma in my pantry, but I do know that my preserves are safe from moulds and pests.

Apricots feel wonderfully sensuous in the hand. The outside of the skin has a soft downy or velvety feel, and warmed by the sun a good sized fruit will just fill the palm of my hand when I reach to pick it, being careful not to let it fall to the ground and bruise. I bite into the fruit and the slightly tart juice spurts onto my tongue, giving my taste buds a little jolt, then I chew the delicious fruit and it slips into my throat. I prefer to pick the fruit before it is fully ripe, thus preventing bruising, and also saving it from the birds who also love to feast noisily in the higher branches.

Health Benefits of Apricots

There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than to see my bucket of little golden globes when I have finished picking the fruit for the day. I can look forward with pleasure to eating some of this wonderful fruit with a meal. No need to prepare elaborate desserts when we have these little wonders coming directly from our own tree, so fresh and full of goodness. Fresh apricots are healthy because they contain lots of beta carotene, the plant form of vitamin A, and which is a good anti-oxidant. They are also high in fibre and low in calories, and make a good snack. Weight for weight, dried apricots are an even healthier option as the drying process increases the concentration of the beta carotene and fibre and also the levels of potassium and iron.

Our apricot tree grows in a lawned area at the side of our house. In winter its bare but majestic limbs reach for the winter sky, but in spring it is a beautiful thing in a white filmy dress dancing on my side lawn. In summer the heavily laden limbs bend low with invitation, and I am able to pick some of the fruit without climbing a ladder. The leaves are broad and roundish, with pointed apex; smooth; margin, finely serrated; petiole half an inch to an inch long, generally tinged with red, and provide shelter for the developing fruit and in some cases protection from the hungry birds.

At Christmastime the widely spreading arms of the apricot tree, heavy with promise and just showing a change in fruit colour, provide shade for a family picnic on the lawn, and the tree seems to know that it must wait for the family to go home so that we can give the fruit our full attention. We pick fruit morning and night, and sometimes in between as we rush out through the door to clap our hands at marauding birds that have come to feast on the topmost branches where the Australian sun has touched the fruit first.

Neighbours, family and friends also share in our bounty, as we have far more than we can use. One could speculate on the sense of even going to all the trouble of caring for our garden of fruit trees. We have the apricot, two plums, a laden avocado, a lemon, a grapefruit, and two apple trees. Although the produce from these is superfluous to the needs of two people, we enjoy sharing the bounty so much that the work involved in caring for them is deemed worthwhile.

My freezer is now bulging with frozen apricot halves that will either be stewed as required or made into jam. Our children all like a little bit of jam on their toast, and obviously this will give this retired sauce and jam-maker something to do in the autumn when precocious winds blow through the valley, tugging the yellowing leaves from the apricot tree, and the cycle begins all over again.



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Margaret E. Walker is a regular contributor - click for Margaret's kitchen down under 



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