Thursday, June 21, 2007
Really ripe apricots
I can buy perfect apricots at the moment at the Cours Saleya market. Big, sexily curved and deep orange, they have a rosy blush that almost looks painted on.
The truth is, though, that these apricots don't really interest me. Oh, I'm happy to bite into their sweet, sunset-colored flesh from time to time. But for me they are too perfect, maybe even a little suspect. I've learned over the years that the less flamboyant yellow-orange apricots at a few of the small farmers' stands have more acidity and a deeper honey flavor, one that makes you feel you are tasting the sun itself (whatever you do, don't eat your apricots chilled).
Even when I'm buying from the producers I snub the unblemished apricots: I want the ones so ripe they have dropped from the tree. I don't care if they look a bit bruised and battered, especially if I'm planning to make compote or jam. The riper the apricot the better it will taste, and I'm aware of how lucky I am to be able to buy ripe fruit picked that morning.
I've been buying my apricots this year from an old couple who sell a small variety of not-very-impressive-looking fruit. How unfortunate are the people who walk past their stand without noticing it! They cultivate old varieties of fruit trees, and what the fruit lacks in symmetry it more than makes up for in character.
The apricots on their stand looked suitably ripe for jam, so I asked for two kilos. It turned out the apricots weren't bruised enough - they brought out a supply of really bashed-up fruit from under the table. Even I was a little anxious as they chose apricots so mushy that I would hardly have to cook them to make compote. But, considering the couple's age and experience, I decided to trust them.
"I'll put in a few musqués for the flavor," said madame, choosing some big, slightly less beaten-up apricots from the table.
Back home, I separated the ones that looked like roadkill from those that were still holding their shape, more or less. I decided to make compote with the mushier ones, as I like my jam with well-defined pieces. For the compôte, I used 1 1/2 lbs of apricots, pitted and cut in half, 1/3 cup water, a little more than 1/2 cup sugar, and half a vanilla bean, with the seeds scraped into the pot and the bean placed inside the mixture. You might want to use more sugar, as my apricots were particularly sweet. I brought it all to a boil and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Nectar was the only word for the resulting compote: I couldn't believe how good it tasted, and I think the mysterious musqués had something to do with it.
With the rest of the apricots I made a traditional jam. One of the producers told me that you can use the almonds from inside the apricot kernels to flavor the jam. If they are bitter you should use only two or three, as they are slightly toxic, but if they taste sweet you can add them all, if you are patient enough to break open each kernel and peel the almond. He told me after I had made my first batch of jam, but I'm now working on a second batch with a few of the kernels, which will add an almond flavour.
I was thrilled, by the way, to finally use my copper jam basin to make this jam. It had been in storage until recently, but it makes the whole jam-making experience seem so much more romantic. Apricots have a lot of natural pectin, so this is one of the easier jams to make.
This is a standard apricot jam recipe, but it's the apricots that make the difference. It's a testament to the fruit, and not to my modest jam-making skills, that this jam far surpassed anything I have bought in a shop. I love its translucent golden color, soft texture and slight acidity, which balances the fruit's natural sweetness.
Traditional apricot jam
Makes 4 jars
2 3/4 lbs apricots (1.3 kilos)
2 lbs sugar (900 g)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
The day before you want to make the jam, pit the apricots and cut into large chunks. Place in a large bowl with the sugar and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, bring the apricots and sugar to a boil in a large saucepan or copper basin with the lemon juice. Turn the heat down, letting the mixture bubble vigorously without spattering. Place a small plate in the freezer. This is one recipe where you don't have to skim the foam - just keep stirring and it will incorporate itself back into the mixture.
To sterilize your jars, either place them in boiling water for 10 minutes or use a sterilizer for baby bottles (if you have one!). I sterilize mine by washing them well and placing them, still wet, in the oven at 375 F (180 C) for about 20 minutes, but not everyone believes in this method.
After about 1/2 hour, you should see the mixture visibly thicken. Take a small spoonful and pour it onto the cold plate. If it looks thick and doesn't spread when you tilt the plate, your jam is ready. If not, let it cook a little longer and keep testing every couple of minutes.
Transfer the jam to the jars using a funnel if you have one and seal while still hot.