By Meg Cathcart-James
What do Alexander the Great, Henry the VIII’s gardener and ancient China have in common? They all enjoyed apricots!
Although Alexander and the gardener are generally thought to have introduced the fruit to Greece and England respectively, their true home is still in dispute. Their Latin name, Prunus armeniaca, was first used by Linnaeus in 1753, which translates to ‘Armenian plum’. The word ‘apricot’ comes from a long etymological journey from the Latin ‘praecocia’ – the root of ‘precocious’, referring to its fruiting period being earlier than its relative, the peach.
Apricots are the national fruit of Armenia and seeds have been found there dating back to the Neolithic period, but there is also evidence from thousands of years ago that they grew in China and India too. Apricots are a staple of ancient Chinese medicine, believed to detoxify the body. They were cultivated in Persia in ancient times to be taken on the Persian trade routes and remain an important crop in Iran, with Uzbekistan and Turkey also major growers.
No matter where this well-loved little orange drupe came from, it has a home at Christmas dinner tables across the world both in the sweet and savoury sections of the menu. As long as you don’t include the stone in your recipes, that is – unless you’re after a festive dose of cyanide poisoning! The chemical in them that cyanide derives from is amygdalin, an infamous compound due to ‘quacks’ promoting it as an alternative cancer treatment – strangely enough, studies found it completely ineffective and caused cyanide poisoning in patients that took it by mouth!
Assuming you manage to dodge the cyanide bullet, you can enjoy apricots alongside other festive staples in stuffings, cakes, Christmas biscuits or in liquid form, sweet and warming apricot brandy (try adding a slug of it to your stuffing – what a kick!). Apricots have featured at Christmas for centuries – in medieval Europe, Christmas celebrations were taking over pagan winter solstice ones, but the feasting traditions remained. Spices like nutmeg and ginger, and exotic fruits such as apricots and dates were just becoming available and were too pricey for the average family to eat regularly. Therefore, cakes and biscuits containing them became a special treat to be had only at Christmas.
A more modern Christmas treat from Hungary puts the apricot centre-stage – kolaches. Gone in a couple of bites, with a super simple dried apricot and sugar filling that is seriously moreish! Or, if you fancy something a bit more filling and enjoy an apricot/nut/marzipan combo, there is the supremely aesthetically pleasing Apricot Couronne, a traditional Christmas loaf from France. Definitely Christmas table centrepiece-worthy, full of apricots macerated in orange juice.
The gentle flavour and sweetness of apricots make them the perfect companion to the more savoury flavours of sage, peppercorns and onions in any Christmas stuffing recipe worth its…apricots. Just don’t offer it to a US marine, especially if they’re standing near a tank – the marines have a superstition that apricots are terribly bad luck! They won’t eat them or touch them, nor even say their name – instead, they are ‘cots, or A-Fruit. I doubt I’ll ever have an excuse to post images of apricot stuffing and a US marine together again, so here we go.