Aprikosen, Marillen – from What She’s Having: Stories of Women and Food
by Maria Ilona Moore
Made in a pandemic, featured in the Guardian’s Best Food Books of 2021 and a collection that continues to resonate with so many people: What She’s Having: Stories of Women and Food was the book that introduced us to a whole host of readers who were hungry for stories exploring the relationships that we have with the food we cook, eat and share.
If you haven’t yet read the collection, we promise it’s something to savour. Try a bite with Maria Ilona Moore’s essay Aprikosen, Marillen, where she explores her family’s history, nostalgia and duality of homemade apricot jam.
I’m not sure what spreads and jams were the staples in other kitchens in the small town I grew up in, but in our house there was always apricot jam. Not just any apricot jam, but homemade-by-my-German-grandmother-and-brought-over-in-her-suitcase-jam. And not that stodgy, gelatinous type of jam either – this was the kind of jam that was sometimes more like a compote when you opened the lid. We had jars and jars at home at all times. I have a vague memory that when we moved house there was even a box that was just full of jars of apricot jam; it definitely felt that way, anyway. I’ve never found a similar version in the UK, though I’ve also never looked for one because I know it won’t compare. Sometimes I’ve scrambled eagerly to open a jar of apricot jam on someone else’s table (it’s rare, and more likely to be found in of those tiny packets you get at a Travelodge breakfast buffet) but I’ve always been thoroughly disappointed by the smooth pale jelly inside, which tastes more of sugar than anything else. It’s nothing like my family’s kind of apricot jam, which is rich and deep in flavour, and leaves behind a sticky orange stain when it drips off your slice of toast and lands in a dollop on the front of your T-shirt.
I can’t speak German, not really, but I can understand it fluently and have always felt like the language is embedded deep inside me somewhere. My mum gave up speaking German to me because I’d just stubbornly reply in English, but it’s still a part of me, inherently, learnt mostly by osmosis back when I was a child listening to the conversations of adults. Occasionally it pops up from the depths of my memory, unexpected, unannounced, but very welcome. Sometimes this comes in my dreams – the ones where I can speak fluently and wake up sorely disappointed – but more often it is in the words that come to me seemingly instinctually. I hear Vorsicht in my head before I hear careful or watch out, perhaps because I heard the German warning more when I was growing up, when I was still learning how to be vorsichtig. Other times, it’s more like when you get a song stuck in your head, a word or phrase plays over and over in my mind for seemingly no reason. There is a joke I think about a lot, also jam-related, about a frog (a Breitmaulfrosch) saying Marmelade and Confiture. There is my grandma’s sing-songy morning greeting, Guten Morgen, Ohne Sorgen, which I feel the urge to say when my friends stay over and we rise sleepily together, feeling totally at home with each other. And then there is Aprikosen und Marillen.
In the German I know, the German my family speaks, an apricot is an Aprikose, but in Austria, where my grandmother lives and where I spent my summers as a child, the word is Marille. It used to confuse me, the differences between the two variations of the language. I was anxious enough about getting it wrong, so suddenly finding out there were different words for the same thing only added to that. Aprikose made sense for obvious reasons; Marille felt like something flouncy, something extra to remember. But now this duality has become a comfort. I think of both words when the fruit is in season and the punnets are stacked up in Lidl, just like I can’t walk past the ketchup aisle without hearing Mr Burns’s ‘ketchup/catsup’ refrain from The Simpsons. It would seem apricots have become inadvertently embedded in my personal history.
Apricots are underrated. Everyone knows peaches and nectarines, but the humble apricot is often left out. Sometimes even I forget it – my mind flits to the hot-pink refreshment of the watermelon, the sangria-red playfulness of the cherry, the everyday ease of a crisp Granny Smith – and it’s not until I see them return to the supermarket sometime around May that I remember how much I love them. But when I take the pack home, rip the plastic netting from the box and dig in, I’m disappointed. I was over-eager and didn’t want to wait for it to ripen, so it’s hard and tart, the inside more the watercolour of a cantaloupe than the poster-paint orange I’m used to. I try another and get the same result. Then another and this time, it’s almost there, the flesh giving way easily in my palms, but the taste still lacking the depth I’m used to.
The perfect apricot you can pull apart with your thumbs into two perfect halves. It is a rich glowing orange, the colour of a jar of marmalade in the sun or a brand new traffic cone, one that hasn’t been weather-worn and faded yet. It is juicy, but doesn’t drip everywhere like when you bite into a peach or an overripe pear; it’s thicker, more syrupy. And the taste is a rich mix of sweet and tart and floral; not as soapy as a Parma Violet though, don’t worry.
Maybe the apricot is underrated because we just don’t get good ones in the UK, or at least not in my local supermarket. Because when I tuck into a perfectly ripe apricot in my grandmother’s kitchen, I sometimes think I’ve never tasted anything so good.
It wasn’t just apricot jam and the actual fruits I ate my grandma’s, there was cake and biscuits too. The biscuits were tiny folds of sweet buttery pastry with apricot jam. The corners of the pastry wrap round the filling like it’s giving it a hug. These would be on a tray with other delicate cookies, dusted in icing sugar (Puderzucker) and with various fillings – but the apricot ones were always my favourite. The cake my grandmother made herself: a simple flat, square spongey base with apricot halves pressed into. It could be frozen to make it more manageable to get through (as if I needed help) and I remember taking slabs back to England with me, tied up in a blue freezer bag to help it survive the journey. It never tasted quite the same when I got off the plane. I asked for the recipe once, eager to make it when I returned to my own kitchen, and she wrote it out by hand for me on a sheet of notepaper from the pad she keeps by the telephone. But, of course, I didn’t bake it once I got back. I don’t really bake, and I wouldn’t be able to find any good apricots anyway.
It turns out the subpar apricots found in the Lidl down the road are, most likely, actually rubbish – not just rubbish because they don’t compare to my nostalgic, sun-drenched, rose-tinted version. Apricots are a fragile fruit, needing a stable climate and an early summer (I mean, who doesn’t?). They tend to get picked and shipped before they’re ripe, so they’re easier to transport and ready and uniform for the eager supermarket shopper. That’s why in the UK we so often end up with what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall refers to as a ‘woolly, watery disappointment’. Despite this pallid reality, I still hope for John Ruskin’s more flattering description of apricots, ‘shining in a sweet brightness of golden velvet’, when I see them in the shop.
I live my life through cultural references, and I can’t help but feel the apricot needs its day in the sun. The peach got its happy ending in Call Me By Your Name; the plum, ‘so sweet, and so cold’, as William Carlos Williams put it, has become a well-versed meme; the apple is, of course, everywhere. There is the heavy symbolism of the pomegranate and the romantic side of strawberries, that chocolate-covered stalwart of Valentine’s desserts. But what about my dear apricot? To me, it is a fruit of dualities and dichotomies. It is Aprikose, it is Marille. It is the bland, chilled supermarket variety and the luxurious sun-warmed softness of the ones I know from my childhood. It is sweet and delicate; intense, yet unpretentious. It is not as sexy as a peach, but it has that same connotation in the ripeness of its flesh, the shape of the fruit, the vibrancy of its shade. It is so familiar to me, intertwined with my family’s history, which is as convoluted as anyone’s, intrinsically European, both close and just out of reach. Yet with that familiarity comes expectations that can’t quite be met. I think I’m learning to accept the contradictions, to sit with the difference.
I may never find the perfect apricot outside of my summers in Austria, but one thing I can be sure of is the fruit will always be a comfort, so tied up with the nostalgia of the jam and the biscuits and the cake I’ll never bake.
What She’s Having: Stories of Women and Food
Whole stories are made across a dinner table, and in What She’s Having, sixteen writers explore the complex and meaningful relationships that women have with the food we cook, eat and share.