My first harbinger of summer was 10 days ago when I packed up my super light Scandinavian duvet and put it away until next November. The second sign of summer, which I can always count on at the end of April, was last week when I saw the first apricots in supermarkets and neighbourhood fruit and veg shops.
Prices ranged from €2.99 to €4.99 a kilo and although they looked good I didn’t buy any because in my experience the first apricots are usually from the mainland and are not ripe enough — meaning they are hard, not at all sweet and not really tasting of apricots. Growers are always in too much of a hurry to get them into the shops and on stalls at the market and they pick them while still unripe.
I’ll wait or a week or two before buying any, which is what I always do. By that time the Majorcan apricots, soft, juicy and sweet, will be on sale and they will become my first summer fruit of the year. They will also be my favourite fruit of the moment, because Majorcan apricots really are the best.
The apricot, albaricoque in Spanish and albercoc in Mallorquín, is one of the summer fruits most associated with Majorca and not just because it is abundant, good and cheap, but also because much of the harvest is turned into dried apricots which are the best I have ever tasted.
The bulk of Majorca’s harvest comes from the Porreres area and growers have started selling their fruit with an identification tag indicating they are exclusively from that part of the island.
This is mainly to distinguish them from mainland apricots which, everyone agrees, are not as flavourful as those grown here. In some shops and supermarkets mainland apricots go on sale as being locally grown. The identification tags have put an end to that. More apricots are grown in Murcia than anywhere else in Spain, followed by the Balearics and Valencia.
Apricots are at their best when they are juicy, full of flavour and have a memorable perfume. They should be ripe but firm, with plenty of colour and without blemishes. They can become overripe very quickly, so never buy large quantities unless you are using them immediately.
Majorca’s dried apricots, called orejones, are more important to the local economy than the fresh ones. They are exported all over the world, to countries as far away as Japan and the United States, but hardly any of them go to the mainland. Spaniards there prefer those from Turkey.
Majorcan dried apricots aren’t as sweet as the Turkish varieties and because of that they have much more character. Their slightly acidic taste makes them ideal for use in Middle Eastern lamb stews and tajines.
Turkish dried apricots are also on sale here but no Majorcan I know ever buys them and neither do I. It is easy to tell them apart: the Turkish kind are pale and anaemic and the Majorcan ones have a deep robust colour. They are also a good bit dearer. But no one minds paying the extra cost.
Majorca’s production of dried apricots is centred in Porreres and for three weeks in July it’s apricot fever time as the fruit is harvested and prepared for drying. The women of the town, and sometimes others from nearby villages, do a 10-hour shift so the fruit can be put through the drying process as soon as it is harvested.
The apricots chosen for drying are those that have fallen to the ground. The finest ones are collected in baskets and taken to the waiting army of women who slice them in two, extract the pit, and place them on wicker frames or trays, cut side up. The kernels in the pits are later sold for the making of turrón, Spain’s traditional nougat that is an essential part of the Christmas table.
Before being put into the sun, the apricots are placed in rooms where sulphur has been burned. This process, legally binding in many countries including Australia, is necessary to prevent discoloration and spoilage. Two or three days under the Majorcan sun are usually enough to dry the apricots.
Spanish cooks and housewives like to preserve all kinds of fruits and there are two main ways of dealing with 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.
More than 100 years ago, Majorcan housewives sometimes added apricots preserved in syrup to a greixonera of sopes mallorquines. And some Majorcans today use fresh apricots instead of olives to accompany a sopes during the summer months.
Spanish cooks are fond of dipping fruit in batter and deep-frying it and there is an apricot version that is popular. Use the biggest apricots you can find, cut them in slices, leave them to macerate for an hour in brandy or kirsch and then strain them. Dip the slices in beaten egg and then in fine breadcrumbs. Fry them in deepish virgen extra olive oil until they are golden on both sides. Sprinkle with caster sugar and serve immediately.
Majorcan pastry cooks adore working with fresh and dried apricots at this time of year and the fresh ones get a starring role in ensaimadas and the spongecake called coca. Few people these days make their own ensaimadas, but a coca de albaricoques is easy enough.
You will need: as much flour (harina floja) as the mixture will take, 200grs sugar, coffee cups of lard, water and olive oil, half coffee cup of fresh orange juice, 3 egg yolks and a scant tsp of baking powder (levadura en polvo). For the topping: a kilo of large ripe apricots, 50grs sugar, 50grs icing sugar.
In a biggish bowl put the sugar, water, lard, oil, orange juice and egg yolks and beat until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the baking powder and flour until you have a thick but runny mass.
Smear a little olive oil on a rectangular tin mould for cocas (available at some supermarkets and on the fifth floor of El Corte Inglés in the Avenidas) and pour in the mixture.
Wash and dry the apricots, cut in half, take out the pit 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 there is one apricot half per slice.
Sprinkle each apricot half with sugar and bake in a medium oven for about 30 minutes. When the coca is cold sprinkle on icing sugar.
You can buy coca de albaricoques at bakeries, pastry shops and supermarkets, so you can try it without having to make one. But it really is an easy-peasy pastry and you will have the satisfaction of making your own. And as we can go out for only one hour per day, we have plenty of confinement time to follow the above simple instructions.