Who else is lucky enough to have two national fruits?
The pomegranate may be hogging the spotlight these days with all the talk about its near-mystic health qualities, but Armenians adore apricots and place them at the center of both cuisine and culture. It’s not by accident that Yerevan’s international film festival is called Golden Apricot.
At the massive Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China, which is running until the end of October, visitors to the Armenian exhibit can wander through the Apricot Garden among blossoming apricot trees while listening to enchanting music of the duduk, which is made of apricot wood.
The cheeky subtext is that Armenia and China have been rivals for centuries in staking claim to the apricot’s origin. The most influential third-party source remains Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, who named the apricot Prunus Armeniaca some 2,000 years ago.
Since then, however, many of our friends in the West have strayed from our side, as they so often do. Most texts today insist Armenia was merely a fertile repository for transplanted Chinese apricots carried along the Silk Road. If so, traffic must have started pretty early.
In fact, evidence of apricots in Armenia far predates Pliny. According to CWR, the ongoing project to document and preserve Armenia’s native wild crops, the Chinese cite references to apricots in their literature going back 4,000 years. But apricot pits have been excavated near Garni and Yerevan dating back 6,000 years; thus CWR concludes, “We can see the cultivation of apricots in Armenia is 2000 years older than China.”
The same source notes that the apricot tree has been celebrated in Armenian literature since ancient times and that the Armenian word for apricot (tsiran) appears to be of Armenian origin and is found in the Armenian translation of the Bible.
What interests us most of all, of course, is how universally apricots are found on the Armenian table. Virtually every variant of Armenian cuisine includes a litany of apricot recipes. We boil them into jellies, jams, marmalade and compotes. We stew them with lamb or chicken. We steep them in pilafs and stuff them in meats.
The juiciest, tastiest apricots anywhere are said to grow in Armenia’s Meghri region. The closest we come to that here is California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, where Armenian immigrants a century ago cultivated what has become America’s largest apricot-growing region.
A personal aside from Doug: Apricots were always in the house when I was growing up. My father loved to stew them with prunes and eat them with a bowl of Mom’s fresh, cold madzoon. He said it was a treat he remembered fondly from his childhood in Dikranagerd.
The apricot treat I remember most fondly from my childhood in New Jersey is pie. Mom inherited the recipe from her father, who came to America from Kharpert in 1887 at age 17.
Somewhere along the way, Harry Bichakjian became a cook. How and where is a mystery, as is much of his life. Pie doesn’t seem particularly Armenian, but the tangy-sweet apricot filling certainly was. Perhaps he was searching for a way to blend Old Country and New?
Regardless, I know he was baking them long before I came along because my mother’s cousin Alice Bakalian remembers seeing (and smelling!) fresh-baked apricot pies cooling in Grandpa’s restaurant in Union City, N.J., back in the 1930s. She was one lucky little girl because he always gave her one to take home.
My mother always baked an apricot pie on holidays in memory of her father. Now, Robyn bakes them in memory of Mom. I’m one lucky guy.
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Bichakjian-Kalajian Apricot Pie
2 (11-ounce) pkgs. dried apricots
1/2 cup sugar
water, enough to almost cover the apricots
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. cornstarch, if needed
cinnamon, a dash
Note: The filling can be made one day ahead of time.
Crust: Use your favorite recipe for a two-crust pie, or get ready-made dough in the refrigerated section in the grocery store.
For apricot filling:
- Cook apricots and sugar in 3-quart pot filled with water to about 1 1/2 inches from the top for 15-20 minutes. Add butter.
- Break down the apricots with an immersion blender, or a potato masher.
- If the apricot mixture looks a bit runny, combine cornstarch in a small amount of water, then stir it into apricot mixture and heat until thickened.
- Stir in a dash of cinnamon.
For the crust: (Use your favorite double crust recipe.)
- Follow directions for making pastry for a double-crust pie.
- Divide dough into 2 balls.
- Roll the first ball of dough to 1/8 inch-thick circle, one inch larger than the size of an inverted pie pan.
- Butter pie pan before putting in the bottom dough.
- Place bottom dough in buttered pie pan. Trim excess dough, leaving ½ – inch overhang. Moisten edge of bottom dough with a little water. (This will help seal the bottom and top crust together.)
- Separate 1 egg. Brush bottom dough with egg white before adding apricot.
- Add filling, spreading evenly.
- Roll out top crust; place on top of filling.
- Trim excess dough leaving ½ – inch overhang. Make slits on top of dough to create steam vents.
- Fold top crust edge under bottom crust edge. Flute or crimp edges.
- Add 1 tsp. water to egg yolk, beat and brush top of crust.
Bake at 425 degrees for 30-45 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Cool on wire rack.
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Apricots make great appetizers, too. For a modern twist on this ancient fruit, try this simple, yet delicious recipe, Stuffed Fresh Apricots.
Stuffed Fresh Apricots
Yield: 24 pieces
½ cup Mascarpone cheese or cream cheese, softened
½ cup unsalted pistachios, chopped
12 fresh, ripe apricots, halved and pitted
1. Fill the cavity of each apricot with the cheese.
2. Sprinkle pistachios on top.
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Apricots complement main dishes, as well, as in this recipe for Lamb and Apricot Stew.
Lamb and Apricot Stew
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
4 tbsp. butter, divided
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 lbs. lamb, cut into cubes
1 tbsp. lemon juice
½ tsp. salt
2 ½ cups boiling water
1 small piece cinnamon stick, or ½ tsp. ground
3 tbsp. dried currants or raisins
12 dried apricots, cut into quarters
- Melt 2 tbsp. of the butter in a large pot; sauté onions until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
- Add the rest of the butter into the pot, allowing to melt. Add the cubes of meat, a few pieces at a time, to brown on all sides. When all meat is browned, return onions to pot. Add lemon juice, salt, pepper and boiling water. Stir, cover with lid, and simmer for about 1 hour.
- Add cinnamon (stick or ground), currants (or raisins), and apricot pieces. Cover and cook at least 30 more minutes, or until lamb is fork-tender. Remove cinnamon stick before serving.
Serve with rice or bulgur pilaf.