Learn how to make apricot spongecake. | Youtube: Julia y sus recetas

There’s a saying in Spanish that ‘it never rains to everyone’s liking’ — and like so many of the old adages, it’s very true. Those dull wet days at the beginning of May, which made me nostalgic for Britain and all things British, were very bad for the island’s apricot crop.

One of the many things I’ve learned in recent years is that the apricot is extremely susceptible to the weather: the rain at the beginning of the month was a problem, but at other times, when it is too sunny and warm early on, the apricot is also adversely affected.

Mallorca has several well known varieties of apricots and they appear at different times during the season. Growers have already seen that this year there will be very few of the early varieties because they were worst hit by the rainy weather. The current hot spell we are having (or suffering, depending on how you like your daily temperatures) isn’t helping any: growers are saying the apricots could start to ‘boil’ on the trees, so there’s a rush on to get them harvested.

Apricots from Porreres
Apricots from Porreres.

That the first varieties have been affected by the weather is bad news for the trade because they are mainly used in the island’s production of dried apricots. More apricots are cultivated in Murcia than anywhere else in Spain, followed by the Balearics and Valencia.

Fresh apricots at their finest are juicy, full of flavour and have a memorable perfume. Apricots are at their best when ripe but firm, with plenty of colour and without blemishes. They can become overripe very quickly so never buy large quantities at one time. As a rule, those with strong bright colours will be sweeter. Look for a Mallorcan variety with lovely pink tinges on the skin: its perfume is delightful.

Dried apricots from Porreres
Dried apricots from Porreres.

Mallorca’s dried apricots, called ‘orellanes’ in Catalán and ‘orejones’ in Spanish, are more important to the local economy than the fresh ones. Dried apricots are exported all over the world, to countries as far away as Japan and the United States.

Few of Mallorca’s dried apricots go to the Spanish mainland, however, because people there prefer those from Turkey. The Mallorcan dried apricot isn’t as sweet as the Turkish variety and because of that it has much more character. The slightly acidic taste of the Mallorcan variety is most suited for use in Middle Eastern lamb tajines and stews.

There are fewer apricot recipes in my files than for any other product. And if you want apricots in savoury dishes, it’s difficult to find recipes outside of Middle Eastern cook books. The Persians have superb dishes in which the acidity of the apricots brings out the sweetness of the lamb. As the Arabs introduced the apricot into Spain from Persia and as Arab influence in Spanish cooking is still very much present, you would have expected to find apricots galore in Spanish meat dishes, but that is not the case.

Fish, pomelo and apricot salad
Fish, pomelo and apricot salad.

The only Spanish savoury dish with apricots I have come across is a Mallorcan one called ‘capirotada’, which I have written about on other occasions. The apricots are cooked and then used as a sauce for a rabbit that has been boiled, cut into serving pieces and then sautéed until golden.

Mallorcan pastry cooks adore working with fresh and dried apricots, and at this time of the year the fresh apricot gets a starring role in ensaimadas and the spongecake called coca. Few Mallorcans make their own ensaimadas these days, but a coca de albaricoques is easy enough — even for those who have never baked one before.

You will need: as much flour (‘harina floja’) as the mixture will take, 200 grs sugar, coffee cups of lard, water and olive oil, half coffee cup of orange juice, 3 eggs yolks and a scant tsp of baking powder (‘levadura en polvo’). For the topping: a kilo of large ripe apricots, 50 grs sugar and 50 grs icing sugar.

Mallorcan apricot "coca"
Mallorcan apricot spongecake.

In a biggish bowl put the sugar, water, lard, oil, orange juice and egg yolks. Beat until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the baking powder and the flour until you have a thick but runny mass. Smear a little olive oil on a rectangular tin mould for cocas and pour in the mixture. (These moulds are available at some supermarkets and on the fifth floor of El Corte Inglés in the Avenidas). Wash and dry the apricots, cut in half, take out the stone and place the halves on top of the dough mixture, cut side up. Arrange them in straight lines, quite close together. They should be placed so that there is one apricot half per slice.Sprinkle each apricot half with sugar and bake in a medium hot oven for about 30 minutes. When the coca is cold sprinkle the surface with icing sugar.

You can buy excellent coca de albaricoques at bakeries, pastry shops and some supermarkets, so you can try it without having to make one.

Spanish cooks and housewives preserve all kinds of fruits and there are two main ways of treating apricots: in a thick syrup or in alcohol of some kind, usually brandy or aguardiente.
In either case, any velvet-like covering on the skin should be removed with a soft cloth under running water. Compotes of all kinds are also popular, either with Spaniards who have their own trees or those who receive huge baskets of fruit from family members or friends. Some of the fruit is usually eaten fresh and the remainder is made into jams or compotes.

The Basques even have a compote made with dried fruits. They mix together 500 grs of pitted prunes and the same of dried apricots, plus eight cored and sliced fresh apples, 500 grs sugar and a piece of cinnamon stick the length of your index finger.

Everything is simmered over a low heat until the fruit is tender. If the syrup needs thickening it is poured off into another saucepan and reduced. It is then poured over the fruit, which is stored glass screw-topped jars until needed.

A Mallorcan "trampó" with an extra ingredient: Apricot!
A Mallorcan "trampó" with an extra ingredient: Apricot!

More than 100 years ago, Mallorcan housewives sometimes added apricots preserved in syrup to a greixonera of sopes mallorquines. And today some Mallorcans use fresh apricots instead of olives to accompany a sopes during the summer months. As so often happens in country cooking, one eats what is in season and plentiful — and at its best.

Some cooks on the mainland are fond of using batter-fried fruit as a simple dessert. An apricot version is popular. Use the biggest apricots you can find and cut them in thickish slices. Macerate them in brandy or kirsch and then strain them. Dip the sliced apricots in beaten egg and then in fine breadcrumbs. Fry them in 3 cms of olive oil until they are golden on both sides. Sprinkle them with caster sugar and serve immediately.