Let's just get right to the point and tease up an apricot flame war: The Robada apricot is better than the Blenheim. Yes, yes, the Blenheim has an unquestionable pedigree. It's been around for more than 100 years in California and was responsible for making the Santa Clara Valley an apricot goldmine at a time when everyone else was tapping the citrus boom in Southern California.
It has an odd ripening habit, softening from the inside out, giving the fruit that candy-in-the-center appeal of so many childhood desires. And the flavor is consistently sweet and potent. It doesn't take kindly to long-distance shipping — which makes the Blenheim the instant darling of local food advocates, since its delicacy ensures that it won't travel very far. You see “Blenheim” on a farmers market sign and you don't have to ask any questions. It's local, it's good, and you know it'll satisfy a laundry list of apricot cravings, forming in your mouth the Platonic ideal of what an apricot should taste like.
This is where it gets ugly.
The Robada, a variety patented in 1997 by an ag researcher in Palier, just outside of Fresno — the heart of what some would call Big Ag in the state — was the result of a scientist's desire to create a red-blushed apricot that was mostly self-pollinating, could withstand shipping distances, had a large size and growing habit, and if it tasted good, bonus! It is the symbol of everything the local food and heirloom advocates hate: a fruit developed by science and not nature to provide a durable product for the agriculture industry that gave consistently good harvests and was pretty. It's supposed to be horrible. There's no romance, nostalgia, or automatic feel-good locavoristic satisfaction tied to the Robada. It's the kind of apricot that any decent local apricot lover, after doing some cursory homework, would tweet about with the hashtag #omgevil.
Yeah, well, #stfu. It's damn good. And Tenerelli Orchards, one of the most reputable stone fruit growers in our markets (they don't even grow the Blenheim), debuted its summer season at Hollywood with two fruits: a nectarine and the Robada apricot. And they sold out of the Robadas by 9 a.m. Science just pulled an agricultural bazinga. Flame on.
Before we swing into justification mode, Tracie Tenerelli, who (wo)mans the booth at the Hollywood farmers market on Sundays, gave us a quick update about this year's crops. Last year was a nightmare for them and the other orchardists up in Little Rock. A late-season frost destroyed almost 80 percent of their crops, whittling their market presence down from around 20 different farmers markets to a depressing three. It was a frost that brought near ruination and was commented on by a number of customers who happily ponied up to buy their fruit on Sunday, limited as it was.
“It was rough,” said Tenerelli. “But things are looking really great this year. So far it looks like we'll be back in full swing.” That last bit was said in a tone of caution. Farming can be regulated and organized to create optimum conditions for good harvests, but only if the weather cooperates. Winter 2011 was a harsh reminder.
So yes, the Robada. It's definitely firm. In fact this first harvest crop that Tenerelli had out was nearly Fuyu firm. It would ship easily in this state, though a few of the remaining fruits do show the telltale bruising of ripening stone fruit.
“They'll be even better next week,” said Tenerelli. “They'll sweeten up with the heat and are really great.”
The sun-exposed skins redden with a heavy blush, making some of the fruits almost half red and stunning. Size-wise they're practically a handful, rivaling some nectarines we purchased earlier. But here's where the Robada shines. Imagine getting the mouthful of flavor that you'd find in a dried apricot — a potent concentrated mouthful of sugar and well-balanced tarty zing — but in the juicy and fresh flesh of a just-picked fruit. Refractometer readings put the sugar of a ripe Robada near 20 brix. For reference, that's nearly the sugar level of a good pineapple. Now add elderflowers and honeysuckle. And on the finish, a slightest bitterness that reminds you of juniper berries. It's a flavor you sit with after each bite, and there are about five of them with each fruit. You have to slow down and pay attention. The size requires that you bite into it, not just pop the whole thing in your mouth. The firmness requires that you chew, slowly releasing all its nuance. The color appeals to the eye. And the scent is floral and complex.
And it's supposed to get better with each harvest. So you can wait another couple of weeks for the Blenheims, which we'll probably buy as well when they come out. But there's no reason to save yourself for an admittedly great heirloom when you can enjoy the fruits of some lucky science. And they're still locally grown.
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