Small, delicate, soft, sweet and fragrant. These are Valleggia apricots, arrived long time ago from the Far East, discharged by chance in the port of Savona and in time became a product of excellence of that Italian Riviera coastline.
When I was a little girl there was a Valleggia apricots tree in our lands in Albenga. It was a big, twisted tree, curled by the weight of time. As if it had gained experience aging, in the last years of its life this tree produced enormous quantities of special apricots. I remember that every summer, in a hot afternoon of July, we went harvesting them with my Granny for making pyramids of jam jars that we would have consumed throughout the winter.
My brother and I used to climb on its big branches and with our heads in its green leaves we proudly picked those small fruits heated by the sun. When I was biting them, it seemed me that under the fine skin there was already the jam that my Granny would have prepared the next day. The best apricots of my life.
On the wave of this sweet memory, I decided to go looking for those apricots to know and tell their story, but above all to prepare again the jam just as my Granny used to.
So Tuesday at 6:00 am I jumped in my car and went to Valleggia, a hamlet of Quiliano, in the hinterland of Savona (right at the exit of the highway).
First stop the local wholesale fruit and vegetable market, to meet Giacomo Traverso, representative of the Cooperative “Le riunite” (which together with the Ortofrutticola Valleggia, collects the few producers left in the area) and my Cicero in this small trip to apricot orchards – and above all to buy up apricots. Although it was not a day of maximum offer I managed to grab a couple of big boxes of ripe apricots not that bad!
Second stop, reached walking through country roads illuminated by dawn light, the orchard of Pino – whose family has grown apricots from various generations – to pick them up and taste them just picked (this was my personal “Proust like” search of the lost time).
I accompanied Pino in his morning ride (he has another job, apricots are a family tradition that he does not want to abandon), armed with worn out wicker baskets and shaky wooden ladders. And along the way Pino told me the story of his fruits.
The history of Valleggia apricots
Cultivation of Valleggia apricots on the plain of Savona dates back to at least the early 1800s, but the maximum spread – it seems that the orchards extended for hundreds of acres between Savona and Finale – occurred around the 60s.
Then the building explosion that has cemented the few existing plains, the spread of floriculture and the arrival of the competition of apricots grown abroad have in the long run reduced the interest in this crop.
Today there are few orchards remained in the area. Some, such as Pino’s, house trees that are even 70 years old.
To protect this fruit with he very special organoleptic characteristics Slow Food included this product among its presidia of Liguria.
The characteristics of Valleggia apricot
The Valleggia apricot is harvested in June, strictly by hand and with great care.
Their skin is very thin, light orange, and potted – in full ripeness – of brown coloured dots. Small in size, its flavor is sweeter, more intense and smelling than other varieties on the market.
During my visit to Pino’s orchard, I also met his eighteen-year-old mother, whose incredible ability to pack up apricots by hands has been famous throughout the area for years. Yes, because Valleggia apricots are of different sizes and above all they are very delicate so one have to take great care in selecting them (of course one by one) and placing them in the boxes so that they can stand the movements without getting spoiled.
Pino’s mother proudly told me that when in the ’60s from Vado (main cargo train station near Savona) trains loaded with apricots departed to Switzerland and Germany, the customs officers used to ask her husband to bring their boxes to the train station lastly because their boxes of apricots were the most beautiful and the better packed up. The cargo would have certainly made a more beautiful impression at the opening of the doors of the wagons at destination.
Valleggia apricots in the kitchen
I could not help from asking Pino’s mom how they consume the apricots of which they are surrounded.
She answered me, with the simplicity of those people who do not have time to get lost in the details, that they have them just cooked. She cooks the ripest ones (those that are not sold), stewing them in a pot with high edges for ten minutes. She does not add sugar because these apricots are already very sweet.
And the jam? No, no, the jam takes too long to make it! (and maybe in the winter they do not want to hear about apricots anymore…).
My Granny slow cooked jam
My Granny instead made tons of apricot jam. Each summer when the apricot jam “campaign” stared from the cellar we pulled out, in the order: aluminium pots where I could bathe in, a big camping stove with its gas cylinder, wooden ladles about a meter long, at least fifty glass jars of various sizes (religiously kept year by year), and then various bags of sugar and pectin. We overthrew the apricot boxes in the centre of the table in the garden and all the women, my Granny at the head of the table, stared cleaning apricots during all the morning. Then we boiled and canned them during the entire afternoon. And at night the much longed for pyramid of jam jars was eventually done!
My Granny made two versions of apricots jam. The “modern” one with pectin and the “old fashion” one, my favourite: just fruit and sugar, cooked for a long long time so to get brown amber color and with a slight caramel aftertaste.
With the apricots that I brought back from Valleggia I wanted to regain that flavour remained impressed in my memory. This is the recipe (actually very very easy) of my Granny slow cooked apricot jam:
What you need :
2.2 lb of ripe apricots, kernel removed
3 ½ cups (700 g) of granulated sugar
½ lemon, its juice
How you prepare it:
Take the apricots, kernel removed, cut them into small pieces and place them in a high-edged pot. Add the sugar and the juice of half a lemon. Stir and let bake for about 2½ hours. It is not necessary to stirr often, just let the dense liquid slowly simmer for a long time.
Check the doneness of the marmalade with a little saucer. Pour a drop of marmalade onto a cold saucer from the fridge. If it solidifies and does not slip away when you tilt the saucer, it is ready to be put into sterilized jars.
When pouring the hot jam into the jars, take care not to scoop out also the jam attached to the edges of the pot. It would probably be too caramelized.
Wally apricot pie, more or less.
Apricots, especially those of soft, sweet and thin skin, are also very good in cakes because they cook very well in the oven. At home we prepare focaccia with apricots, basically a flat yogurt sponge cake with fresh apricots scattered on the surface. Maybe I will post the recipe later on.
With the apricots of this week, instead, I prepared a special fruit cake, inspired by a recipe contained in Wally’s book “Torte e Segreti” (Waltraud Tsuchurtschenthaler), one of the best recipe books (not from the Italian Riviera) that I met in recent years.
This cake has a very friable pastry base (I used whole wheat flour and cane sugar to accentuate the rusticity of the dough) and a filling made of cream, eggs and fresh apricots. To give some more crunchiness I added chopped hazelnuts over the top. Here is the recipe I sincerely go very proud of.
- 1 cup (130g) of whole wheat flour
- 4 tablespoons (35 g) of brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons (35 g) of granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon of powdered sugar
- 2 ½ oz (70 g) of unsalted butter, cubed
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons of milk
- 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
- 1 cup of sour cream
- 6 cups (70 g) of granulated sugar
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon of powdered sugar
- 2 tablespoons of corn starch
- 15 fresh apricots
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) of chopped hazelnuts
- With a kneading machine (or by hands in a bowl) mix together and quickly all the ingredients until you get a smooth and homogeneous dough.
- Form a ball, cover with a transparent film, and put it in the fridge for at least half an hour.
- After this time, pull the dough out of the fridge, dust with four the working surface and knead shortly the dough to soften it slightly. Using a rolling pin reduce the dough in a thin sheet. To prevent the dough from sticking to the working surface or to the rolling pin, dust it well with flour of place it between two layers of baking paper.
- Butter and dust with four a rectangular baking pan (14 x 4 ½ inches - 35 x 11 cm).
- With the help of the rolling pin, put the dough in the pan and garnish the edges by crushing them with a fork and always with the tips of a fork make some holes at the base of the pastry so to prevent it blowing up during baking.
- Preheat the oven at 350°F (180 ° C.)
- Sprinkle the grated pan on the bottom of the pasta (it will help absorb the juice released by the fruit during cooking and prevent the pastry from becoming too soft).
- In a large bowl, whip the sour cream with the sugar until a solid and compact mass is obtained. Add the yolks, the powdered sugar and the corn starch.
- Pour the cream on the bottom of the cake and level it with a spoon evenly.
- Wash the apricots, cut them in half, remove the kernel, cut them into quarters and lay them over the cream.
- Complete the filling by spreading the chopped hazelnut on the surface.
- Bake the cake for 45-60 minutes.
- Let it cool down completely before serving
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