BY DANI KANDO-KAISER / PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANI KANDO-KAISER
Summer is unarguably our region's favorite time to visit the farmers market. With spring's harvest on full display and the smell of ripe fruit in the air, the Valley's markets are always packed.
Aside from the pleasure of going to the market, many of us are there to quickly take advantage of the relatively short season of top-selling fruits and vegetables. And, with our current historically low rainfall, the season for that perfect produce may have been shortened considerably.
Luckily, there are folks like Dianne Madison of D. Madison & Daughters—makers of the very popular jams that are sold at the Davis Farmers Market on Wednesday and Saturday. In keeping with our issue's theme of sustainability and our current water shortage, we spoke about one of their top-selling products: apricot jam.
ES: Why apricot jam?
DM: Apricots are one of the most delicious of all fruits, but the season is very short, so it's good to be able to extend through the year by drying apricots or making jam. For the commercial apricot grower, harvest season is chaos. The crop can ripen in a very brief span of time and it's difficult to get it picked. The fruit is very fragile and perishable, and all of the other growers have fruit at the same time, so the market is crowded. By making jam we can turn a perishable product into a nonperishable one, and extend the season.
ES: Where do you get your apricots?
DM: We have 60 apricot trees. For a family farm like ours, with no employees, this is a manageable amount. The harvest season lasts about three weeks, but if the weather gets suddenly hot, it can be over in 10 days. We sell about a third of the crop as fresh fruit, make jam from about a third, and the rest we share with friends and wildlife. Raccoons and turkeys and coyotes like apricots, too!
ES: What variety of apricots do you grow?
DM: We grow a variety called Golden Amber. It has a dense fruit, is flat with a sharp point, and a distinctive flavor. A lot of people think that an old heirloom variety called Blenheim is the best apricot. Blenheim can be pretty good, but it's a magnet for disease, which makes it a really poor choice for an organic grower. Our Golden Amber trees have been in the ground for 26 years; we have never sprayed, and never had any disease, and that goes to show that heirlooms are not necessarily the best. There's an old heirloom variety called Hungarian Rose and the fruit is delicious, but even old trees won't make more than two dozen apricots a year—no way to earn a living from that.
ES: Which apricots are good for jam?
DM: Some jam is made from cull fruit, but we use only our best. The critical issue is irrigation. We semi-dry-farm the trees, which is to say we do not irrigate until after the harvest in late June. This means that the fruits are developing under conditions of water stress, which results in small, dense, flavorful fruit. Sometimes, in the supermarket, you will come across big, beautiful-looking fruits that are disappointingly tasteless. Probably, they have been over-irrigated.
ES: How do you make the jam?
DM: We have a licensed food processing facility on the farm for making jam and olive oil. The apricots are washed and cut in half, and the pits taken out. They are then boiled in big copper pans for three hours or more. We do not add pectin to any of our jams, so in order to get the jam to thicken we have to boil it until most of the water is gone. This intensifies the apricot flavor.
ES: How about sugar?
DM: Sugar is both a sweetener and a preservative. We use the minimum amount of sugar required as a preservative. The jam is mostly fruit. We tried using organic sugar, but the taste was off, so we use conventional cane sugar, which is why our jams are not labeled organic even though the fruit is organic.
ES: How does store-bought jam differ?
For industrial jam producers, sugar is the cheapest ingredient, so they load up the jar with sugar. Then, they get it to set with pectin or some other thickener instead of boiling it down. The intensity of flavor just won't be there.
ES: Do you make any variations on the apricot jam?
DM: We make some apricot jam with ribbons of lime peel in it. Our customers love the apricot-lime as a glaze for fish or meat. But, mostly we make straight apricot.
Your label shows you and two daughters making jam. Do your daughters help a lot? They help when they can. Our older daughter lives in the Bay Area and has a very demanding job. Her sister is a university student in Spain. So, it is pretty much just my husband and me running the farm.
ES: How much jam do you make every year?
DM:About 3,000–4,000 jars. Apricot, fig and blackberry are the most popular. We make between 500 and 800 jars of apricot.
Dani Kando-Kaiser writes about travel, tourism and food throughout California, and thinks there is no finer food than the Affogato at Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station, the taco sampler at Guisados in LA and the stone fruit that grows in Sacramento.