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California fruit abounds

(article, Deborah Madison)

This time, I decided to drive to California instead of flying. But soon into the drive, I asked myself, "Why am I doing this?" 

It’s a 21-hour trip, long enough to get through a great deal of Crime and Punishment. Surely the Barstow-Needles section was my punishment, but what was my crime? I haven’t yet picked one, but a reward for endurance has appeared. For at this moment, northern California is the land of ripe fruit.  

The Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco is absolutely fragrant with strawberries, apricots, and peaches. (There was one stand devoted to a creepy new stone fruit, an apricot called Candy Cot. Hard. Sweet. No acid. Depressing.) 

The first figs were in, as well as blackberries. And blueberries, which seems a relatively new crop to me for California. All of this fruit was just in time for the series of potlucks, dessert events, and book signings I was scheduled to attend — which made them much more fun. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Wild elderberries."]

It’s always interesting to me to see how people use and interpret recipes. My sister reminds me that a recipe is a record of something that worked once. Even though I do test everything a lot, each person brings his or her own approach to a recipe, often improving it — and sometimes not. 

I was not crazy about the red chile raspberry jam added to Lindsey’s berry tart (a recipe in Seasonal Fruit Desserts). But I loved the wine gelée (also in that book) made with a rosé Champagne and gorgeous strawberries by the pastry chef at Stellina in Point Reyes Station. It is indeed the perfect dessert for hot weather.

I am staying with my siblings near Davis, inland from the Bay Area, and have just had a fruit tour of the garden and farm. Up close, you see things you don’t see in the market. For example, the Blenheim Apricot, a highly praised heirloom fruit, is a problem. A lot of the farmers don’t have a crop this year, and my brother-in-law points out how they start to rot on the stem before they are fully ripe. Still, we eat around the brown spots, and they’re awfully good — just not sellable. 

Great for jam, though. 

The Santa Rosa plums are almost ripe, and with a few more days of 104-degree heat, they’ll be ready to pick. The same is true of some big plump green figs. There are still oranges at the tops of the trees, and a late variety from Australia is just starting to come on. These oranges, the ripe ones, are actually plump with sweet juice in early summer. 

Are they in season? Well, yes; if you have a tree and a ladder, apparently they are. 

The abundant and plentiful wild elderberries are ripening up by the creek, and I wish I were here long enough to explore working with them. No one does bother with them, but the birds love them. 

At my brother Mike’s place, Diane, his wife, is stirring pots of inky blackberry jam from their rows of fruit. It cooks quickly, uses little sugar, and tastes just of the fruit. This they sell at the Davis farmers' market, along with their olive oil and gorgeous flowers. 

And now I remember just why I drove: I can come home with a case of jam, a case of olive oil, some currant cuttings that came from my old garden at Green Gulch Farm (a gift from the good farmer Wendy Johnson), some grasses that I can’t find in New Mexico, pottery from Sandy Simon (my Seasonal Fruit Desserts ceramics collaborator), bags of plums, and a few figs. 

I’ll drive home in a car that’s fruit-fragrant. And I can’t wait to hear the rest of Crime and Punishment.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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