There they were: small, imperfect, some mottled and spotted, but the sweet perfume that arose from them was unmistakable.
I had not seen real apricots like this since I was a student, renting a squalid house in North Carlton with the most magnificent apricot tree in the front yard. The fruit ripened perfectly each year and fell into your hands as you plucked them. The neighbourhood Italians would come with buckets and elaborate stories as to why they should be allowed to take some away. I was happy to see the tree stripped bare by autumn.
The apricots I found at the market were the Moorpark variety, a type so old and revered it is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park as one of the most flavoursome of its kind, and was planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
You could once find this sweet, fragrant apricot everywhere: in backyards; in commercial orchards; in greengrocers. That is, until the major food chains demanded a firm, full-coloured apricot that packed easily and had longer shelf life. Imports began to pick up the shortfall in production, which explains why you now find amazing-looking apricots that taste like nothing.
The beautiful little fruits that I was delighted to buy were grown in Tasmania, which is now starting to grow more and more real apricots.
It is to our eternal shame that Australia has now become a net importer of fruit and vegetables: This happened for the first time in 2007-08, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, when fruit and vegetable imports soared to $1.5 billion in 2007-08, exceeding exports of $1.33 billion.
For quite some time now, major retailers have demanded uniform-looking fruit with a long shelf life This is an old story, and one we know all too well – rock-hard tomato, anyone? But what isn’t widely recognised is the loss of important agricultural species from Australian production as a result of narrowing consumer preference and supermarket rigidity.
The gregarious restaurateur and fierce advocate for the Murray River growers, Stefano de Pieri, is scornful of the lazy consumer attitude that has resulted in generations of table-grape vines being ripped out of the ground throughout the Riverina because we won’t eat grapes with pips. The pallid varieties that sell in the major food shops barely compare and, even more importantly, some farming has ceased and significant varieties have been lost because of our unadventurous consumer ways.
The good news is that growers are starting to get it, and if they can get enough consumer backing, the major grocery chains might get it too. In an industry situation statement from October last year, the Horticulture Industry Network conceded that with an emphasis in the fresh market on the production of attractive, firm, full-coloured apricots, increased shelf life has been delivered at the retail end, but “the marketplace now recognises that this has compromised eating quality”. And here’s the bit that makes your heart leap: “If the decline in sales that has resulted is to be reversed, techniques and varieties that provide the consumer with a more satisfying eating experience are required.”
That means we consumers have seen the light, and recognise that older, irregular, less pretty but more delicious varieties of apricots, and other fruit and vegetables are what we really want.
Amid their tears, I can almost hear the Riverina farmers sing.