Sweetness & Light: The Making of CandyCots

June 29, 2012

sites/default/files/stone_fruit_tour_graphic_slideshow_0.jpgOn a recent farm tour, CUESA adventurers journeyed to some of the sweetest farms in the San Joaquin Valley. At Bella Viva Orchards, they strolled through stone fruit orchards and got an up-close view of sun-drying cherries. Next, farmer John Driver gave a rare tour of CandyCot Fruit Company, where the group picked apricots right off the trees.

To get a taste of the whole tour, view the slideshow. Read on to learn the fascinating story of CandyCots, an eagerly anticipated summer treat at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, available this season for one more day only.

The sweet fragrance and powerful flavor of a CandyCot is enough to make you rethink your definition of a good apricot. Biting in, you’re first struck by sheer sweetness, quickly followed by flavors that are concentrated and jammy. These small orange jewels—the product of more than 15 years of careful plant selection—are currently available only from CandyCot Fruit Company.

Farmer and plant geneticist John Driver grew up in the tree nursery business. All the varieties of fruit and nut trees his family grew originated in Central Asia, and later, his career as an agricultural consultant drew him to that region. Traveling to countries like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, he discovered a diverse array of apricots unlike those he had tasted back home. “Here in the U.S., we have a very narrow germplasm base, a small [genetic] representation of what apricots are in the wild,” he observed. Captivated, he amassed hundreds of apricot seeds, which he brought back to California in order to develop his own locally adapted varieties of these exceptional apricots.

sites/default/files/candycot_bite.jpgTo create his new varieties, he generated controlled crosses between two parent strains with desirable characteristics. A controlled cross involves emasculating the flower (removing the pollen-containing stamens) and then fertilizing it with the other variety’s pollen. Since it is generally difficult for apricots to adapt to new climates, Driver selected cultivars that naturally thrived in their new environment. “We went to the seed bases so we could look at a much wider genotypic range of material,” says Driver. Growing the apricots from seed allowed him to find varieties that were easier to adapt.

Starting from when the initial cross is made, it takes about 15 years to produce fruit that is ready for market. Of the five cultivars he’s created so far, Driver is currently growing two for market: Anya and Yuliya. Anya fruits earlier and is self-pollinating (its flowers can fertilize themselves). Anya’s flowers also help pollinate the neighboring Yuliya trees, which still have another year to go before they reach peak production.

One of the first things you notice when you enter the CandyCot orchard is the unusual shape of the trees. Pruning and training the trees onto V-shaped trellises helps ensure that the wood gets the most light possible, Driver explains. The pruning process allows him to select for the younger wood, which will bear fruit the next year.

Another unique feature of the trees is less visible: they are grafted onto peach rootstock. Driver chose peach rootstock because it helps the trees fruit a bit earlier than they would on their own. The rootstock he uses is also resistant to diseases in the soil. CandyCot used to practice organic methods, Driver explains, but consistent problems with bacterial canker caused him to turn to synthetic pesticides in order to keep his trees healthy and productive.

sites/default/files/candycot_john.jpgDriver began testing his new varieties of apricots at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in 2005. “[The tests] really changed my mind about what people wanted,” he says. “I thought some of these types were too intensely flavored, but people voted by buying boxes of them. It allowed us to understand what the consumer really wants.”

“We’re making selections based on flavor, not on size of the fruit or appearance,” he continues. As any CandyCot convert will attest, what these apricots lack in conventional beauty, they make up in sweetness. Using a refractometer, Driver measures his fruit’s sugar levels in Brix, a system also used for wine, fruit juice, and honey. CandyCots consistently measure between 26 and 32 on the Brix scale, while most supermarket varieties of apricots register in the low teens.

What about those beige, wrinkled spots you see on some of your CandyCots? Driver calls those “sweetness indicators,” where the sugar has become concentrated as the fruit ripens and begins to dry on the tree. He encourages us to eat those CandyCots first, since those are the sweetest fruits of all.

Tomorrow is the last day of the season to try CandyCots for yourself at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Interested in coming on a future CUESA farm tour? Join us on our upcoming “Crops and Kraut” tour on July 22.

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