The Glabrous Apricots of Tajikistan

Spurred by memories of first love and impossible sweetness, the author of The Fruit Hunters investigates a culinary holy grail—the delectable apricot.

Adam Leith Gollner has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The...

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| | Adam Leith Gollner

In 1990, when Communism ended, my family moved from Montreal to Budapest. Our Hungarian home overlooked a leafy schoolyard. All the neighborhood kids hung out there, including a pretty girl who lived across the grounds. She was in eighth grade, one year below me. By the end of spring we were hooking up. We’d meet after dark behind her socialist-realistic apartment complex and sneak into the boiler room, a tangled nest of steam valves, connector pipes, and looming machinery.

Walking hurriedly to our spot one June night, I jumped the school fence and found myself immersed in fragrance. I peered up. Several dozen golden apricots were dangling from the branches. I’d encountered them a few times in Canada and was pretty sure they were supposed to be perfume-free. These smelled crazy, like hybrid cardamom-vanilla-jasmine flowers in full sticky bloom.

Plucking one, I was struck by the smoothness of the skin. Instead of the usual velvety feel, this one had the glossy sheen of a nectarine or a cherry. I took a tentative bite. The flesh was astonishingly juicy—syrupy nectar pooled to the surface and ran down my arm. Compared to the juiceless cottonwads back home, this was a dripping, pulsating lifeform. It seemed to have been drenched in wild honey, butterscotch, and first kisses.

For years afterward, I’d buy apricots whenever I saw them, always hoping to relive the experience. They never tasted remotely similar. Often, they were inedible—mealy and coin-flavored. I came to realize that most commercial apricots are pesticide-sponges bred for color. They’re usually picked unripe, so they can survive the indignities of cold-storage transportation and spend weeks looking unblemished in fluorescent produce aisles. Repeated exposure convinced me that the varietals on offer at farmers markets—even the much-hyped Blenheim—aren’t necessarily better. At a certain point, resigning myself to the once-in-a-lifetimeness of that Budapest summer, I gave up on apricots.

The flesh was astonishingly juicy—syrupy nectar pooled to the surface and ran down my arm.

*

Unless a fruit has somehow become entwined with their adolescent delectations, most people don’t really care all that much about it. They’re content with supermarket strawberries, dry oranges, and the occasional farm-fresh melon. But anyone fortunate enough to have come across a premium cultivar at the height of ripeness laments the quality of mass-produced fruits. Just think of Kramer waiting all year for a taste of his beloved Mackinaw peaches on Seinfeld. “Jerry, this is a miracle of nature that exists for a brief period—it’s like the aurora borealis!” he says, devouring one. “Oooh, this is fantastic. Makes your taste buds come alive. It’s like having a circus in your mouth!”

The Mackinaw is fictional, but real three-ring fruits do exist: Baby Crawford peaches, Alphonso mangos, Lambert cherries, fraises des bois, the milk-oranges of Wen-Chou. Finding them is the challenge. The good ones are as elusive as the northern lights. They aren’t available in grocery stores. The fruits there—year-round raspberries, mushy Red Delicious apples, rock-hard plums—are the produce equivalent of industrially manufactured bacon bits. They’re as far from the real thing as shelf-stable tubs of imitation bacon sprinkles are from Burgers’ hickory-smoked country jowl or guanciale at Volpetti in Rome. Complicating matters, truly exceptional fruits can’t be vacuum-packed, refrigerated, and shipped long distances. They’re often too fragile to even make it out of the orchard intact. Just picking one can bruise it. Their season lasts a mere week or two every year.

Very few growers focus on mind-blowing fruits because they’re so challenging to commercialize. Sampling them often requires traveling to their source at the precise moment they become ripe; otherwise they’re simply not available. Stubbornly resisting the imperatives of an instant-gratification economy, proper fruits remain what they were hundreds of years ago: aristocratic indulgences, or something children stumble upon in out-of-the-way corners of the globe. The only way to try a red-fleshed durian is by flying to Borneo in January. (Or by living there.) Not coincidentally, many fruit explorers also happen to be fantastically wealthy monomaniacs—as I learned when writing a book about rare exotic fruits and the obsessives who seek them out.

In the course of that research, I steered clear of apricots, certain that they wouldn’t live up to my admittedly impossible-to-meet expectations. But when the editors of this magazine approached me with the idea of uncovering culinary sweet spots, I decided to pick up the search again. Any reluctance I felt about desecrating teenage coming-of-age memories was trumped by the possibility of discovering something even better.

The first step in locating the world’s best apricots is pinpointing their center of origin. If it hasn’t been paved over, a fruit’s evolutionary birthplace is usually a gene pool where the widest variation—and the most delicious exemplars—can be found. Wild apricots proliferate all over Asia and the Middle East, but within the larger diaspora, there are a few noteworthy hubs of diversity.

One is Iran, where apricots are traditionally called eggs of the sun. “In some Persian Palace whose quiet garden hears only the tinkle of a fountain it would seem to find its right setting, fitly waiting on a golden dish for some languid Sharazade,” wrote fruit connoisseur Edward A. Bunyard, in 1927. Long before that, Marco Polo came across them on the banks of the Amu Darya. But as enticing as Iran’s apricots sound—from the red-fleshed Tomchams to the white-fleshed Shalahs—the Arab Spring’s upheavals made it an even less auspicious time than usual for a Celto-Magyar-Canadian to attempt trekking through Shia countryside for fruit.

Another hotspot, as identified in de Candolle’s Origin of Cultivated Plants (1882), is central China, home to pink apricots, gray apricots, and the rare smoked apricots of Hupei. More recent sources point toward the vicinity of Uzbekhistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, before being sentenced to death by Gulag, wrote of the myriad untamed apricots to be found in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains. Supernacular exemplars grow near the city of Tashkent, founded upon the remains of Ming Uruk, which means “A Thousand Apricot Trees.” Even better, according to silk route anthropologists, are those from the Fergana valley in Tajikistan, just to the southwest of Tashkent.

The Republic of Tajikistan, nicknamed “the Roof of the World,” lies north of Afghanistan and borders western China. With only 4,000 tourists a year, it’s one of the planet’s least visited countries. On maps, many village names are only spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet. Curious about the cost of flying there, I plugged in a search for flights from Montreal to Khujand on an online booking site. After a lengthy processing period, the screen went blank and flashed the following message: “Now that’s an uncommon route.”

When I did a search for “Tajik apricots,” one of the first results was a posting by an apricot entrepreneur from Asht. His name was Afzaliddin Abdusamiev, owner of the Tajik Fruit Company. He was looking for investors, and had posted a thirty-second video pitch. “We have sveetest apricot in all vorld,” he claimed, also promising a sugar content more than 100 percent higher than that of Californian and Turkish apricots.

Abdusamiev had already exported thirteen metric tons of cleaned, dried apricots to Pennsylvania: “This was the first time a food product was sent to the U.S. from Sughd Province, Tajikistan.” The website identified his partner in Lancaster, PA, as Myron Stoltzfus.

I tracked down his number. Stoltzfus, an affable businessman, isn’t a die-hard fruit devotee. His passion is entrepreneurialism. He got involved in apricots, he said, as a way of realizing his dream of making a difference in the lives of those in underdeveloped nations. He also imported sun-dried tomato salsas and tapenades. Still, he spoke highly of the fruits he’d come across in Central Asia.

“There are many varieties of apricots in Tajikistan that are not known to Western tastebuds,” he explained. “They come in different colors and different sizes, and their high sugar and high acidity gives them an incredible flavor that far surpasses North American apricots.”

The fresh fruit are too delicate to export, Stoltzfus added, but he and his partners had developed a process for importing super-premium dried apricots. He was focusing on four varieties: Jelena, Larissa, Valentina, and Natasha. Each has its own unique flavor and they all take on a pleasantly soft texture when preserved by the sun. Unlike ordinary dried apricots, which have a rubbery quality, the ones Stotzfus shipped to me were tender, moist, and incredibly sweet. I preferred the Natasha best, but that also happens to be my girlfriend’s name, which can only be further evidence of my tendency to conflate love with apricots. Regardless, Abdusamiev’s pitch was spot-on: they are at least 100 percent better than any other dried apricot sold in stores. (This summer’s crop will be available around the time this issue hits. To order, visit http://www.enduringsun.com)

When I asked Stoltzfus if he’d been to the region, he said he had. It is in a beautiful valley, he explained, “but very remote, very rural, and a very challenging place to visit.” If I wanted to go, he recommended I speak with his partner Dwayne Hershey, a fellow Pennsylvanian who now lives in Tajikistan and oversees the apricot exporting process.

The nobility’s insatiable desire for the fantastical fuelled the import of countless marvels.

“The fresh apricots here are so juicy and high in sugar it’s like you’re eating candy fruits,” Hershey gushed, when we spoke over Skype. I asked him to describe the sorts of apricots that grow there. He spoke highly of a variety called the Kandak, considered by the inhabitants of Khujand to be the sweetest one of all. “Locals believe it has healing powers,” he continued. “Doctors prescribe it as a natural medicine for people with ongoing diseases.”

Two other interesting specimens he’d encountered were the Golden and the Shiny. “The Golden has an incredible appearance,” he said. “It looks like its made of gold. It’s a very bright yellow, and it almost has a transparent quality to it. It’s glabrous, meaning the skin is smooth and glossy rather than velvety.”

Glabrous! There was a word for the Hungarian apricots of my youth.

Hershey went on. “The exterior of the Shiny actually shines, if you can imagine that. It’s a deeper orange than the Golden, but when you see them, they both seem to glisten, almost as though they were waxed or something. They look totally unlike the matte, dull apricots we’re used to.”

As tantalizing as those glowing glabrous apricots sounded, finding them in their element wasn’t a sure thing. Hershey was my one contact in Tajikistan, and his focus was dried fruits for the export sector. He hadn’t spent much time in the field. He couldn’t say exactly when they’d be in season. He wasn’t sure where the trees grew. He’d only ever seen them in the marketplace. Sensing my uncertainty, he mentioned that there might be other people with more experience hunting for fresh apricots in Central Asia. “Have you spoken with John Driver yet?” he asked. “He’s the one who first introduced Myron and me to Tajikistan’s apricots.”

John Driver is an American fruit breeder whose family has been farming in Northern California for generations. He spent fifteen years traveling through Uzbekhistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang in search of high-flavored apricots. “There really is a tremendous amount of different apricots over there,” Driver told me. Unlike Western apricots—invariably tawny or orange-yellow, occasionally flecked with red—Eastern ones range in color from purple-black to cream-colored with a rosy blush. They can be as small as a pea or as big as a tennis ball, as sweet as honey or as acrid as cat pee on burnt toast. “As a plant geneticist,” Driver added, “that kind of diversity is thrilling. You’re like a kid in a candy store—you gotta try ‘em all.”

Like Stoltzfus, Driver hadn’t started out with a lust for apricots. “When I was younger, I rarely ate them,” he explained. “I remember thinking, Apricots really don’t got it.” After university, he worked as a walnut scientist who focused on micro-propagating plant tissue cultures. He even tinkered around with genetic engineering, trying to breed a type of blight-resistant apple, but getting regulatory approval would’ve cost millions, so he dropped that line of work.

His life changed when he started working with farmers in Central Asia. “I wasn’t there looking for apricots,” he said. “Volunteering was the goal – I was doing it to help people over there. After a while, I started noticing the diversity of apricots and thought I oughta at least collect some. Boy, it turned out there’s a lot of genetic material out there.”

Driver preserved hundreds of apricot seeds over the course of his travels. A small number of them successfully adapted to his Northern California farm, and he now grows a range of Central Asian apricots. A few years ago, he started marketing them as CandyCots: “The sweetest things on Earth.”

He didn’t think my idea of traveling to Tajikistan for apricots made much sense. “It’s a pretty tough deal over there,” he said. “The whole region has a lot of unrest and conflict. There are jealousies and hatreds going back centuries. They just had a tremendous civil war between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz. It’s heartbreaking: they were doing ethnic cleansing. I don’t even know if you could get a visa as a tourist right now. The governments are notoriously harsh, and they don’t like journalists. The people there are wonderful—so welcoming and hospitable, and very hardworking—but because of all the unemployment it’s very poor and undeveloped. When the Soviet Union collapsed, everything collapsed. There are terrible stories about men going to work in Russia and then coming back and infecting their wives with STDs and AIDS.”

The agricultural situation didn’t sound much better. Most of their commercial orchards were planted long ago, and they’re not what they used to be, Driver continued. “It’s so sad, because the land is so fertile. All our fruit and nut varieties that we grow here come from around there—apples, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pear, plum, cherry, apricot, and even some peaches. They could be as rich as California. The potential is there, and there’s been progress in recent years, but there still aren’t many amenities.”

“What is it like to travel over there?” I asked.

“The hotels are fleabags,” he said. “And the Fergana valley is huge. To really understand it, you’d have to jump around from Jalal-Abad to Samarkand to Andijan—all the ancient silk road kingdoms have their own apricots. They aren’t that far apart in terms of distance, but it isn’t easy getting around. You would have a real language problem, so you’d need to hire guides.”

“Do you know any?”

“No, unfortunately. I don’t have people to connect you with.”

Our conversation reminded me of a passage in one of William T. Vollmann’s books. In 1982, he traversed the border of Afghanistan in the company of mujahadeens. “I will never forget the morning we came to an apricot tree one hill away from a Soviet base. The tree was bowed beneath the weight of its golden fruit. In the sand by the tree was a human jaw.” After a reading several years ago, I asked Vollmann what it was like over there. “It was really fertile… and normal… and gruesome,” he responded. “All at the same time.”

But then Driver said something that made everything come into focus. “Why don’t you just come out to California in June? In terms of a spectrum of diversity, you’ll see way more apricots on my farm than you would visiting Central Asia for a week. It would be interesting to visit some of those places, but, as far as fruits go, it’ll take serious time to find the good stuff. I barely scratched the surface in over a decade. There’s a tremendous amount of dooryard stuff, which is very interesting but never makes it to market. For the most part, you’ll find a lot of junk.”

“Do you have any glabrous apricots?” I asked, wavering.

“As a matter of fact, the glabrous ones are the most intensely flavored apricots I grow,” he answered. “Such apricots have never been cultivated successfully in North America before, and it’s taken me quite a while to get to this stage. When you get here, you’ll be able to try a whole bunch of them.”

Visiting Driver sounded more sensible than hiring a helicopter gunship in the Fergana valley. As David Fairchild, the USDA’s first fruit hunter and author of The World Was My Garden (1938), once wrote: “an agricultural explorer, it seems to me, can, as a general rule, obtain more material of value in a cultivated region than he can by penetrating into the wilds. Agricultural crops accompany man, and are not found in the untracked wilderness.” California’s apricot season would be in full-stride in mid-June. I booked a flight to SFO.

*

Before leaving, I scanned the literature for information about glabrous apricots like the Golden and the Shiny. The term glabrous itself means free of down or hair. That fuzzy skin on normal apricots and peaches is technically called the pubescence, a strangely appropriate coincidence given the nature of my enquiry.

Botanists distinguish between different types of pubescence with unsettling meticulousness, deploying terminology like velutinous (velvety haired); sericeous (silky haired); villose (long, soft haired); hirtellous (short and stiff-haired); setose (bristly, with very hard, erect hairs); lanate (covered in wooly hairs); ciliate (fringed with flaxen locks); aculeate (riddled with prickles); and, gnarliest of all, arachnoid (enmeshed within a spiderweb of fur). Perhaps a certain degree of horticultural perviness is unavoidable; after all, fruits are what happen after flowers have sex. 11French author Jean Luc Hennig left no cranny of that terrain unmined in 1991’s Dictionnaire Littéraire Et Érotique Des Fruits Et Légumes. The entry on apricots notes that they represent “the very nature of a woman herself.” Hennig’s definition gets increasingly graphic: the “vulva-apricot,” with its velvety pubis and the neatness of its interlabial furrow, is compared to the pudendum muliebre, a sacred opening, a hiatus, a small smiling ass, and “paradise or the whatever.”

Seeking some non-R-rated information on glabrosity, I dug deeper into the historical archives. Food encyclopedist Alan Davidson’s passage on apricots led to Berthold Laufer’s Sino-Iranica (1919), which states that the earliest history of the apricot was intertwined with that of the peach. The two prepubescent fruits eloped together from China toward Persia, following the establishment of trade routes by general Zhang Qian in the 2nd century BCE.

Apricots managed to adapt everywhere from the mountains of Northern Pakistan to the schoolyards of Budapest. Glabrous ones evolved naturally, but they aren’t usually seen on this side of Eastern Europe because Hungary marks the Western boundary of the Eurasian Steppe, a vast ecoregion that stretches all the way to Mongolia. The Huns and other nomadic tribespeople crisscrossed the steppe on horseback, dispersing apricot seeds and other crops wherever they went.

Laufer’s book also contains a curious passage about something called the “gold peach.” In 625 CE, and then again two decades later, the kingdom of Sogdiana (a region now split between Northern Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekhistan) sent a diplomatic gift of fancy fruits to the Emperor of China. They were carried from the Fergana valley, over the celestial Tian Shan, across the Taklamakan’s shifting sands, all the way to the court at Chang’an. The Chinese aristocracy had never seen anything like them. “They were as large as goose eggs, and as their color was like gold they were also called ‘the Golden Peaches.’”

Could they have been glabrous? Unfortunately, concluded Laufer, “it is not known what kind of fruit it was.”

Perhaps a certain degree of horticultural perviness is unavoidable; after all, fruits are what happen after flowers have sex.

“The Golden Peaches of Samarkand,” wrote historian Edward Schafer, in his 1963 book of that title, symbolized “all the exotic things longed for and the unknown things hoped for by the people of the T’ang empire.” Those people were in no shortage of exotic comestibles, which makes it all the more significant that something as plain as a fruit could have had such an effect on them. The T’ang dynasty ruled China’s Golden Age, from the 7th to the 10th centuries CE. At that time, the capital of Chang’an was the most important city in the world. The Silk Road terminated there, bringing with it rarities from enchanted climes: cockatoos from Celebes, camel-humps from Bactria, taste-altering powders from Champapura, and thousand-year jujubes from the Southern Caspian.

The nobility’s insatiable desire for the fantastical fuelled the import of countless marvels. Among them, writes the brilliant essayist Eliot Weinberger, were grains that could make you light enough to fly, crystal pillows that gave you hallucinations of faraway lands, and heat-emitting rhinoceros tusks powerful enough to warm entire castles. At least five T’ang emperors died as a direct result of consuming mercury-based alchemical elixirs intended to make them live forever.

But nothing captured their imagination more than the golden peaches, explained Schafer, who believed they have since disappeared: “Though they once had some kind of ‘real’ existence, these fruits have become partly enigmatic entities, whose only true life is literary and metaphorical. In short, they belong to the mental world even more than to the physical world.”

While that’s partly true, Schafer was unfamiliar with glabrous rarities like the Golden and the Shiny. A normal peach, being downy, would never be described as golden. Neither would the average apricot, shining only, as the Victorian art critic and poet John Ruskin put it, “in a sweet brightness of golden velvet.” But that velvet nap—the pubescence—may be precisely what’s kept the mystery obscure.

“When I was over there,” John Driver told me over the phone, “I became convinced that the Golden Peach of Samarkand must be a nectarine… and I have it here! It’s small, totally yellow, and wildly delicious. I’m hoping to commercialize it in the future, but for now the closest you’ll come to that is the glabrous Honey apricot that I have over here. Actually, in my opinion, the Honey tastes even better than the Golden Peach.”

As the date of my departure neared, I was getting more and more excited. Californian stone fruit expert David Karp, otherwise known as the Fruit Detective, had written rave reports about CandyCots, saying they were the best apricots he’d ever tasted. Other online testimonials eagerly concurred. I wondered: would Driver’s CandyCots compare to the apricots I’d had as a teenager in Eastern Europe? Or was I vainly hoping for something that belonged to the mental world rather than the physical?

The anticipation mounted when Driver emailed telling me that cold weather and rains had damaged the crops. There would still be a harvest, but the ripeness date was being pushed back a week. I rescheduled my flight for the 22nd. Then, a few days later, he told me to reschedule again: the apricots were going to be even later than expected. From what he could estimate, the best time to arrive would be June 28th. That whole month, the Freudian notion that one’s desire is always in excess of the object’s capacity to satisfy it kept rattling around in the back of my thoughts.

*

But Freud never visited John Driver’s farm at the pinnacle of apricot season. On the morning of the 28th, I pulled into the driveway of his orchard in Waterford, a few hours east of San Francisco. Driver, a smiling sixty-year old man wearing sunglasses and a wide-brim sun hat over his sloping forehead, came out to greet me. He was getting ready to haul a few crates of just-picked fruits over to the CandyCot warehouse, so he suggested we talk and drive. Climbing into the cab of his pickup truck, I immediately noticed the musky fragrance. There were only a dozen different apricots on the seat, but it smelled like a tropical flower shop in there.

That whole month, the Freudian notion that one’s desire is always in excess of the object’s capacity to satisfy it kept rattling around in the back of my thoughts. But Freud never visited John Driver’s farm at the pinnacle of apricot season.

“That aroma is something you never come across at the supermarket,” I remarked.

“I don’t even call those things they sell in supermarkets ‘apricots’ anymore,” he replied. “Commercial apricots today are just for decorating stores. I don’t know why anyone would want to eat them. They taste terrible because they’re picked green. At least when they’re unripe they have some tartness, but once the acidity levels drop off, all you’ve got is the flavor of cardboard. They just don’t meet what I call ‘apricot expectation.’”

“What’s that?”

“People often tell me, ‘Apricots are my favorite fruit, but we can’t ever find good ones to eat.’ Meaning they have expectations about what an apricot should be like. It begs the question: why are apricots their favorite fruit when they can’t get any good ones? People who’ve never even tasted a good apricot still say they love apricots more than any other fruit. I think the answer is that, planted deep within people’s brains, there is an ideal of the perfect apricot. Nothing they’ve ever tried meets that expectation—but now we have some varieties that will really ring people’s bell. Wait till you try these ones.”

Driver handed me a small, fuzzy orange apricot. It was a variety called Anya, he said. I bit into it and then sat there dazed for a few seconds. My first thought was “Freud was wrong.” It went beyond sweetness, boasting extremely concentrated, jammy, spicy flavors. And the texture was so different from normal apricots: chewably firm yet simultaneously juicy. It wasn’t just exploding with liquid, it had that elusive quality fruit growers call “pleasant resistance.”

“I wanted you to try that first, because this one is even sweeter,” Driver said, handing me a shiny yellow apricot.

“Glabrous!”

“Yup. This one’s the Honey.”

With a thumb on either side of its furrow, I pressed inward. It didn’t bruise or rupture, but rather split in half neatly. Syrup seeped out from the flesh like molten honey.

“I can see where you got the name,” I said. “What’s the technical term for nectar pooling into puddles like that?”

“There isn’t one,” he laughed. “Growers here have never seen these kinds of events before, so there’s no reason to have a scientific term for something that doesn’t occur.”

The Honey was even better than the Anya. It more than met apricot expectation. It was the Platonic ideal of the perfect apricot. Socrates spoke of glimpsing the limitless ocean of Beauty—this was like tasting it. I closed my eyes as the flavors resonated like a sweet bell clanging in my mouth. There was a tiny amount of bitter-almond flavor as well as an unidentifiable savory component, both of which allowed all those sugars and acids to bounce around off each other. Wine writers have no idea what they’re missing, I thought to myself.

Socrates spoke of glimpsing the limitless ocean of Beauty—this was like tasting it. I closed my eyes as the flavors resonated like a sweet bell clanging in my mouth.

“It’s not like other apricots, is it?” Driver asked.

“I don’t know what it’s like,” I said, trying to recuperate. “These taste like apricots should, but never do.”

We pulled up to a small warehouse, where Driver’s partner Chris Britton and his two young sons were gently packing the fruits into foam-lined boxes.

“Welcome to our high-tech packing facility,” Britton joked.

“Early on, we made a conscious decision to not do what others do,” Driver explained. “No unripe picking, no packing lines, no running ‘em across tables. Our fruits are picked by hand and packed by hand. It’s the only way it can work. You gotta rethink everything, but it’s worth it.”

Driver then drove us over to the main CandyCot orchard, where rows of trees were covered in bright orange and yellow fruits. Dust and sand swirled through the air, a reminder that as lush as the landscape looked, we were actually in an irrigated desert. “There’s a lot of similarities between here and the Fergana valley,” said Driver. “They have the Tian Shan mountains and we have the Sierra Nevada. But there’s also a big difference—we’re a Mediterranean climate, and they’re Continental.”

That difference makes it challenging for Asian fruits to adapt to California. But Driver brought back so many seeds that at least a handful thrived. “I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile for a number of years,” he said. “When I saw them growing, I though that there’d be nothing but junk. The trees looked weird, and most of the fruits weren’t very good. All of the fruits were much smaller and not as perfect-looking as Western apricots. But then, as time went on, I found some trees that had good stuff.”

Once those fruits hit maturity, he realized he had something special on his hands. Sugar levels are measured in brix units, using a device called a refractometer. Supermarket apricots, Driver explained, usually register between 11 and 15 brix. His Central Asian apricots were logging anywhere from 26 to 32. But the fruits weren’t just outrageously sweet; they also had a muscular acidity and flavor complexity. To decide which ones consumers would like best, he started doing taste tests at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Market. “At the beginning, I thought people would prefer the milder varieties, or the ones that were exclusively sweet,” Driver said. “But they wanted the most intense ones we had.”

Based on the taste tests, Driver settled on five different varieties to be grown as CandyCots. Alongside the Anya and the Honey, there was also the Yulija, the Mischa, and the Eleni. (Both Stoltzfus and Driver have given their preferred varieties post-Soviet-Bloc girls’ names.) After I’d sampled a bunch of canonical CandyCots, Driver led me over to his selection block, where I could see a greater range of Central Asian apricots.

“This is diversity,” he said, pointing at all the different trees in his oasis. Some of the fruits were large and pink, others were small and green. There were pure white fruits, and others that were cream colored with green shoulders. Some of them actually had green flesh, even at ripeness. Many of the different fruits looked banged up, either splitting open or covered in beige scuff marks, which Driver said were sugar-spots. “These fruits have built-in sweetness indicators,” he explained, “but we have to educate consumers that patching like that is the only way you can get such sky-high sugar levels. They may not look perfect, but they taste incredible.” All those sweet spots seemed to literalize the fact that this grove, on this particular day, was the global sweet spot for apricots.

Driver looked towards the horizon. Storm-clouds were blowing in. He expressed concerns that it would rain that afternoon. (There was a downpour several hours later, and it rained over the next few days as well, destroying much of the remaining crop). Needing to continue the harvest over at the main orchard, Driver said I was free to wander around and try anything. I thanked him for his time and generosity. We shook hands and he drove off into the dusty sunshine.

I spent the next hour or so giddily tasting apricot after apricot—orange, green, yellow, and white. Aware that I’d never again encounter apricots this good, I was savoring the bounty while it lasted. Maybe Tajikistan would’ve yielded treasures, but it was hard to imagine anything better than this ephemeral moment. Wordsworth spoke of “spots of time,” those instances in each person’s life that, whenever remembered, seem to repair the mind with their renovating virtue. This was one such spot: a sugar-dotted patch of time.

Slightly dizzy from all the sweetness, I arrived at a branch covered in radiant glabrous fruit. Capsules of sunlight. Bursts of gold on an emerald sea. Arboreal jewelry. The act of biting into one set off a haunting concatenation of impressions. The flavor wasn’t just transporting; it was disturbingly alive, almost deadly. It slayed me. A tunnel opened up. In the tree’s shade, years disappeared. And for a moment, I tasted the memory of being a fifteen-year-old in love.

Adam Leith Gollner is working on a new book, Spring Eternal, that will be published in summer 2013.

This article was previously published in Lucky Peach magazine.