The sweet rewards of a fruitful season
Virginia and Dutch's house sat well back from the ridge road, on the edge of Nimshew Ridge, in the Sierras east of the Sacramento Valley. Their backyard, nestled into a forest of ponderosa pine trees and manzanita brush, supported four apple trees, three plum trees, and three peach trees.
Virginia and Dutch went to southern California for most of the year, and I took care of their place while they were gone. I also reroofed a neighbor's house, helped build a new house up the road, and I did gardening and odd jobs when I could.
I was grateful for earnings that paid for my needs, but my passion that summer and fall became drying fruit.
The fruit of the backyard orchard ripened. Dutch had several wooden frames, with nylon screen, for drying fruit. I used those, and I built more racks from new nylon screen and scrap materials from the places I worked.
I sat in hot summer sun, cut fruit, and placed it on an ever-larger number of racks. I turned pieces of fruit and gathered into plastic bags the fruit that had dried.
Neighbors down the ridge road offered me the use of their sulfuring shed, and I experimented with that. The smoke from the smoldering sulfur settled on the fruit and allowed me to keep the pieces larger and more moist without spoiling them. I could see the advantages of the sulfuring process, but I didn't think anything should be added to the fruit if I could avoid it.
I liked the fruit with nothing on it best: an intense concentration of the flavor and sweetness of fresh fruit. So I returned to slicing the fruit thinner and drying more of the moisture from it. I had racks of fruit drying on sawhorses, and on boards or branches placed on the ground to keep a few inches from the dirt. Fruit filled the backyard and the driveway, and occupied the roofs of the house, garage, and shop.
Eventually, locally grown fruit ended its season. Winter rains poured down.
I had several hundred pounds of dried plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, apples, pears, and a few pounds of wild berries I had harvested from the mountain.
Visitors discovered whole-grain pancakes with dried fruit stirred into the mix, meat stews with dried fruit stirred in toward the end, so the pieces would soften but retain their integrity. Partakers of Remmerde's famous stir fry bit into pieces of dried fruit and expressed surprise, then approval. Rice dishes showed colors of dried fruit stirred in for the last few minutes of cooking.
I gave family and friends packages of dried fruit for Christmas. People who had entered the front door that summer and fall with, "Hope you got room on your drying racks. We brought peaches and berries from that stand just before you start up the mountain," received the biggest packages. I hadn't forgotten who understood how serious I was about my fruit-drying.
When spring returned to the mountain, I still had a few pounds of dried fruit. The fruit trees in the backyard put on new, green leaves, then blossoms that graced the area with delicate colors and odors. The trees dropped their petals and showed the tiny fruit just beginning to grow as I ate the last of my dried fruit beneath warm, growing branches.