When Logan and I arrived at Betty Van Dyke's apricot orchard out in Gilroy on Monday, the perfume from the apricots was breathtaking. This is easily the most fragrant place I've ever photographed, and I include Hawaii in my reckoning.
Smell is the most primary of our senses, and the one that is the most hypnotizing to me. For a few moments, the sights around me dimmed while I rushed back to a memory long forgotten: sitting on my sofa in San Diego, circa 1980, sipping apricot tea with Michael Deitering, fueling a conversation we both were reluctant to end. But end it we did, and he married her anyway...and died young, several years ago. Sigh.
Apricots. Blenheims, in this instance. I'd never cared too much for apricots, thinking them bland. Now I know that is because I'd never had a Blenheim, which is what Betty grows. An only child, Betty's been working the ranch since she started taking over the family business since 1970; she took over completely in 1974.
"You never see Blenheims in stores," I heard her tell a customer at the farmers market. They get bought up at farmers markets and by chefs, and by people like Sherry, who'd driven all the way from Santa Cruz to the orchard to buy a flat of apricots she'd hand-selected, to use in homemade jam. Another man, Bill, was neatly dressed in a crisp, striped shirt, pressed khakis, and shiny loafers. He, too, was choosing particular apricots for a home project.
I'd had the good fortune to be seated across from Betty and her partner, Ray, at a farm dinner a couple of seasons back. Betty is friends with Bill Denevan, the apple grower: she is the person who certified him as "organic" so many years ago. The first thing you notice about Betty is that she's beautiful, and that she's got a great voice, like Lauren Bacall. She and Ray laughed easily and often, and Bob and I both enjoyed their company tremendously. Plus, Ray knew me from my newspaper columnist days, and he was a fan. Charmed, I'm sure!
I started visiting Betty at farmers markets, and got her involved in a food professionals group I belonged to. When she came to one of the mixers, I introduced her around, and when the buzz of Blenheims hit the room, she was suddenly surrounded by chefs and restaurant owners. (Coincidentally, the dish I'd brought to the mixer featured Betty's dried apricots, and it was a smash hit. Recipe to follow, below.)
Betty has often showed me photos of her land, and told me about the packing shed, but nothing prepared me for how huge and beautiful a space it was. Oh, sure, utilitarian and not really beautiful, but I was smitten with the place. Indulge me if I tell you that the beams and corrugated roof were palatial in my eyes. The crew had thinned when we arrived, but earlier in the day, a hundred people had been buzzing around, slicing the apricots and laying them on the flats. Breaking with custom, all the fruit was going to remain unsulfured, a decision made by Betty's son, Peter, who lives and works at the orchard.
Those flats...there are twelve thousand of them. TWELVE THOUSAND. 1-2-0-0-0. Those that weren't spreading across every inch of the ground, were stacked in the packing shed, being filled with apricot halves.
The rains this year had hit Betty harder than most of the farmers I know: the cherry blossoms had taken such a pelting that the crop was miniscule compared with former years of glory. The apricots had fared somewhat better, but fruit growers have a much bigger risk with their crops. A tomato farmer can plant again (or plant something different), but there will be no fruit from a flower lying on the ground.
Betty's cherries last year had been all the reason I needed to invest in a cherry pitter: Logan's rapture in eating them validated my choice. (Ever pitted cherries? Your hands will look like a Sopranos bloodbath when you're done.) She was out of cherries only the week before, and now sells them dried at the markets, along with Eureka lemons, and both fresh and dried apricots. And there is one more thing Betty might have: her capers.
Originating from the island of Capri, hence their name, capers go back to ancient times, thousands of years. Raw capers are not what you're used to: they acquire their tangy zing from brining. Betty's capers are a labor of love for her: from the thirty-year-old bush (about seven feet tall) that Betty's mother planted, she systematically picks the berries. It's meditative work, the kind that's good for problem-solving and mental planning. The flowers are exquisite themselves (that's one pictured, at left): they last but a half a day. Oddly enough, I've always loved capers, but rarely do I like olives. (That's changing, too, since David Kinch started feeding me the olives he serves at Manresa.)
In the little garden behind Peter's house, where the caper bush grows, Betty's also planted a pomegranate tree with brilliant red flowers. Artichokes, potatoes, and herbs flourish in the dry heat, as well.
We strolled out to the orchard to see the pickers, but they were not Betty's usual crew. "These guys are practically asleep," she told me. "A professional picking crew really knows what they're doing, and they strip the trees in no time. Picking apricots is different than cherries. A cherry picker can stay in one place all day, because the cherries are so condensed on the branches." Logan didn't seem to notice that the pickers weren't top notch: he climbed one of the ladders himself. Betty said, "You can just tell he wants to be an apricot picker when he grows up." He did have a look of serious admiration on his little face. "What glamour!" she laughed.
The apricots she handed us were still warm from the sun, and they were heavenly. "I love being outdoors," she told me. "I love my work." She told me about growing up in the Santa Clara valley, before it had been paved over with industry, when it was carpeted in orchards. Bob has often told me that, coming home from the beach, you could smell the orchards when you reached the summit of Highway 17. I said, "You really are blessed to have known the valley when it was the valley, huh?"
"Blessed is exactly what I am. I was talking about that with Bill Walsh--you know him, right?" Do I know the former coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners? He's like the Pope to Bob, who goes to the church of the NFL every Sunday in season. "We went to school together, and I used to date him. He wanted to marry me."
I laughed, "Any regrets?"
"Are you kidding? I wasn't going to give up surfing for anyone!" She was emphatic. "But he's just a great guy. I told someone when he got the coaching job, 'They're going to the Super Bowl in three years." Three years it was.
She walked us to the car, and just in time for me to meet Peter. Like his mother, he's fit and tan, and has the relaxed face of the Californian who appreciates where he lives.
The orchard is just grand: there is no other word for it. It's smack up against the Santa Clara hills, and it sprawls its fragrant shade over acres and acres. Nearly eight thousand?
Betty Van Dyke: another one of the goddesses I know.
Coming home, I stopped for lunch at In-N-Out, just to see what all the fuss is about. And you know what? I still can't tell you what all the fuss is about. I was doing some Scientific Research to assist a chef friend who's coming to California, and who'd been advised to spend one of his meals in Napa on a fast food burger. (Feel free to skip the following rant.)
Talk about the Emperor's Clothes. There is no there, there. I mean, sure, it was a hamburger. But molecule for molecule, there is absolutely nothing special about that place at all. AT ALL. The fries were normal, the burger was small, on the dry side, and not remotely anything I would ever refer to as "juicy." There was too much bun, in fact, for the meat. The lettuce was crispy, yes. The tomato was ripe, but it in no way surpassed any tomato I've ever had in a fast food joint. The bun was fresh, that is true, and it smelled like good bread, which was novel.
The older woman I shared a booth with said, "It's so crowded today!" I said, "I'll take your word for it: I've never been here and I wanted to see what all the fuss is about." She launched herself: "Isn't it WONDERFUL! You can taste how fresh the meat is! And the buns!" Well, I couldn't, particularly, as the meat was on the overcooked side. I told her I could taste it in the french fries, but I was lying.
END OF RANT. (It's possible I got a dud burger. I will be giving them a second chance.)
When we drove over Mount Madonna, I stopped at a turnout to view Watsonville from above. The sky was crystal clear, and I could see to Monterey. I loved the patchwork quilt that the little farms made of the land below. Look at this panorama.
I came home and made myself a cup of peach tea (the best I could do), and took some pictures of Logan playing ball with his daddy. What a great way to start the week.
ONE MORE LOOK AT VAN DYKE RANCH: this panorama is just a partial glimpse of the apricots drying in the sun (276K: you'll have to scroll, as it's 42.5" wide x 8" tall).
Dried Apricots with Goat Cheese and Basil
(This is a case of something being greater than the sum of its parts. I call it "food that makes your mouth think.")
Less than 1 pound of dried Blenheim (slab) apricots (do not use "Turkish" apricots for this)
4 oz. goat cheese
Less than one bunch fresh basil
Spread goat cheese about 1/4" thick onto a dried apricot. Adorn it with a basil "chevron" (shown in the little graphic at left) and perhaps a sprig of basil flowers or the tiny leaves. Be artsy. Next time I make them, I'll take a picture. It'll last longer.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it." —Julia Child