I had the good fortune to grow up next to the Valley of the Heart’s Delight. Although the region no longer hosts endless miles of orchards — it’s now Silicon Valley — between the beginning of the 20th century and the early 1970s, Santa Clara Valley was the most beautiful and productive place on earth for cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums. Summers were warm and dry but ocean breezes kept the evenings cool and fresh, and the winters had enough chill for the trees to produce abundant, flavorful fruit from May into mid-September. Every holiday season flat, round baskets laden with dried fruits and nuts, were shipped all over the United States, most especially to families living in the snowy Midwest and Eastern United States. Luscious, sweet, dried fruits to enjoy in the dead of winter.
In 1931 Andy Mariani’s family emigrated from Italy and purchased land for orchards in this extraordinary field of dreams. Even better, they purchased land in the southern part of the Santa Clara Valley, an area that has largely escaped the housing and office crush to the north. Today, Andy’s Orchard remains an 80-acre oasis, a rural reminder of how it was during the time of the Valley of the Heart’s Delight.
As a child, in early June my mother drove us to Los Altos, Cupertino or Sunnyvale to purchase cherries and apricots. And every autumn she brought home sun-dried apricots from the market for our school lunches. I learned early on that Blenheims are the holy grail of apricots. Their season is short and the fruit is fragile, but it is exquisite and so worth seeking out. Which is how Mike, Annaliese, Mardeene and I ended up at Andy’s Orchard the first week of July.
Years ago, I introduced Annaliese to Blenheims when she came over to help me harvest apricots in my garden. Liese is an extraordinary baker and artisan producer of a variety of specialty products, including jams. She was immediately smitten when she tasted her first sun-warmed Blenheim. This spring we were both wishing I still had my home and garden with the wonderful heritage fruit trees I planted more than two decades ago.
I asked if she had ever heard of Andy’s Orchard. She hadn’t. Knowing that my friend Mardeene, who lived in the San Jose area for 26 years, was coming to California in early July, I suggested that we schedule a Sunday trip to the orchard. No twisting of arms on this one!
Andy’s is not a typical “U pick” orchard. In fact, the only time the orchards are available to the public is during special events. Fortunately an event was scheduled while Mardeene was visiting. We packed picnic baskets and Liese’s husband Mike drove us to Morgan Hill early on a glorious summer morning. Although the temperature was in the 90s that afternoon, at 10:00 am, a breeze off the south end of the San Francisco Bay kept the air comfortably pleasant as we walked the long entry to the orchards.
Andy has degrees in both orchard and behavioral sciences, is a world-renowned speaker and consultant, and specializes in stone fruit bio-diversity. Every summer he puts on special events to educate the public and to share his exquisite fruit. He also has a store where visitors can purchase fruits in season in the spring and summer months as well as dried fruits and nuts, baked goods and jams and confections year-around. Don’t live anywhere close? Not a problem; there’s an online business. (Below: Liese & Mike meet Andy.)
Unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures of the fruit tasting as we were all far too busy juggling plates and forks and sampling over 50 varieties of apricots, peaches nectarines and plums! After we had sampled most of the fruits, chocolate-dipped apricots and Lebanese and Italian pastries made by local women and sold in the market, we toured the property, which included a talk on the early history of the region, the processing of the apricots and plums drying on trays around us, the old packing shed, built at the turn of the century, moved to Andy’s property and still in use, and the challenges facing farmers worldwide as the climate becomes warmer. The issue for stone fruits is that the trees need winter chill in January and February in order to produce fruit; this is especially true for cherries. While this region is free of late frosts, the loss of winter chill is a serious issue. (Our photographer, Mardeene)
The orchards are divided, with one of the orchards across the road from the main property. Liese and Mike stayed to pick peaches and Mardeene and I walked the long drive over to the other orchard. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a procession of immaculate chopped cars — the Low Riders of the 50s — cruised past us along the country road, 50s music and all. We were living classic vintage rural California!
We went to an orchard featuring a couple of varieties of Blenheim apricots, delicate white nectarines, and Red Top peaches (I think that’s the name for the gorgeous blushed peaches with tiny white dots on the peel that indicates high sugar content). I didn’t think to tell Mardeene that apricots ripen from the inside out so it’s best to pick them before they’re soft or they will be too ripe by the evening. She was so excited to have fruit that wasn’t supermarket-green, that she assumed the softer the better. Not a problem as we ate a lot of the fruit out-of-hand.
We returned to the farm and market area, our fruit was weighed and bagged. Incredibly affordable at $2.75 a pound for top-of-the-line stone fruit We discussed all the delicious ways we could enjoy it. I already knew about the apricots — pie!
The valley was heating up quickly, so we headed out toward Gilroy and over Hecker Pass. Near the summit is Loma Prieta County park, a beautiful region studded with oaks, redwoods and Bay Laurel trees. At 2000 feet it was warm but at least 10 degrees cooler than the valley. We picnicked, shaded by redwoods, then took our time driving through rural Santa Cruz county, where apple trees have been largely been replaced with berries, but white corn, lettuces melons, beans and so much more still grow. Monterey Bay was awash with jewels of sunlight and a whisper of a breeze as we returned home to enjoy fresh strawberry shrub and Meyer’s Lemon cupcakes. Are we spoiled? Yes!
How you too can enjoy the fruits of Andy Marini’s labor right here Be sure to buy dried Blenheim apricots, and their chocolate-dipped dried Blenheims are the best I’ve sampled anywhere.