The apricot trees are in bloom at the ranch. Even when bare they are beautiful, with gnarled, crusty black trunks. Some are more than a hundred years old. Now, dressed in shimmering white, they are not only lovely but headily fragrant. Leaf buds are beginning to appear, slivers of pale green. Soon they will be followed by the setting of the fruit.
By the Fourth of July, rosy-orange globes, often sunburned to a finely striped or freckled Indian-red, as plump and round as a baby's bottom, will be tucked among dark green leaves. These are Moorpark apricots, grown in the little town of Moorpark, in Ventura County, Calif. As far as I know, they are a fast-vanishing fruit. Most of the property near ours, on the curving canyon road just above the rapidly growing residential section, has been given over to more profitable crops, citrus or avocados - or houses.
Our fruit are as big as a child's fist. When broken open, and the pit removed, honeyed juice pools inside the halves. You must sip it out carefully before biting into the succulent flesh or it will drip down your chin.
The small, hard, store-bought fruit most people have to eat bear no resemblance to "real" apricots. Ours are dry-farmed, watered only by rain, and untouched by pesticides.
We are not commercial "ranchers," as fruit farmers in southern California are grandly called. In fact, we no longer harvest for anyone but ourselves. The trees don't bear well now. We were always part-timers, as was the previous owner, our dear friend.
My family (parents and five children) had picnicked in the sunny rolling hills of the property from my earliest memories, usually accompanied by Mr. D., the owner. We played in the tree house that grown-ups had built for us in a huge pepper tree, flew kites on a ridge above Mr. D's land, and looked for moonstones in the wash that ran through it. And, of course, we picked and ate the apricots.
One Christmas during the Depression, our friend, a childless widower, gave us the 35 acres as a surprise, because, he said, "I can think of no other folks who would make better use of it, or enjoy it more."
We would start preparing for the harvest late in June. We had a shack on the property, built from the remains of a broken-down barn, in which we stored odds and ends. (We frequently camped in it over vacations and weekends.) Here we kept boards, nails, hammers, a beach umbrella, and chairs - all the makings of a thrown-together roadside stand. This had to be up no later than July 1. The Fourth of July weekend was our greatest picking and selling period.
Dad couldn't take time off from his insurance business to sell apricots during the week, but we kids and Mama often kept our little stand going when he wasn't there. Dad made signs:
APRICOTS - RIPE!
You pick - $I per flat
We pick - $3 per flat
By bag - 25 cents
Then, in small letters, down in the right-hand corner: Ramelkamp Ranch.
FIRST we picked for ourselves, because Mama was a great maker of jams, jellies, preserves, and (best of all) apricot pies. Then we picked for friends and neighbors who couldn't make the long drive up from Los Angeles. These were greatly appreciated, looked-forward-to gifts every year.
The harvesting was hard, hot work, but glorious fun as well. We kids raced through the sun-dappled orchard trying to find the "best" trees. Shouts of "Look, Mama, look at my tree. It's loaded!" and "Mine has the biggest apricots!" rang through the air. We competed to see who could pick the most.
Bees and ants were the serpents in the paradise of our harvest. I can't recall anyone getting stung, but I remember fanning bees away as we reached for the ripe fruit. As for ants in the picnic lunches, Dad would pick them out of the potato salad, saying, "What's a little ant or two?"
The buyers came. Some were Dad's customers from town who wanted to visit with my parents while picking fruit. Others were Sunday drivers out for a refreshing day in the country, whose eyes were caught by our signs. Many came from tiny neighboring communities: Ojai, Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Santa Susanna. They knew our apricots by reputation. Sometimes we made $400 on a weekend, which was a lot in those days.
At home, Mama put up the fruit in Mason jars. After days of canning and jamming, the shining rows filled the top shelves of all our kitchen cupboards. Our entire house was redolent with sweet, mouth-watering, fruity smells. Often she put strawberries in with the apricots, and, less frequently, expensive, crushed, canned pineapple. "A cup per cup" (of sugar for crushed fruit) was her jam recipe. No other preservative was needed.
We girls helped with all this cooking. As a reward, we got to eat the frothy "skimmings" from the simmering jam (delicious on warm thick chunks of bread) and the "scrapings" from the huge jamming pot.
YEARS later, we kids, the second Ramelkamp Ranch generation, inherited the property from our parents. We continued to enjoy picnics and apricot picking. Several enterprising nephews, living from time to time in the modern cottage my parents had built as their retirement house, earned pocket money selling the harvests to locals. Though approached by realtors and subdividers, we did not sell our beloved property.
I recently deeded my share of the land to my children; but I still expect to get my part of the dwindling apricot crop. I am counting my Mason jars and clearing space on my shelves. Our friend Mr. D was right when he gave us the ranch all those years ago. No family could have enjoyed it more.