For many a peach eater, the stone fruit season is a quest in capturing a taste experience, be it from childhood or last year. “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard,” wrote Helen Keller about sense memory. For me, jarring peaches is a ritual in capturing a season. An afternoon spent with the smell of fruit and syrup, the way they slip out of their skins and how the finished peaches in Ball jars look so picturesque and Martha Stewarty. I’m all set with my apron, my jazz, my sugar, my sterilized jars, and a box of Red Haven Peaches.
Elberta, O’Henry, J.H. Hale, Sun Crest, Star Fire, Ice Princess: the lineup sounds like the cast in a Disney movie, but these are just a few of the many varieties of peaches that grow across the great U.S.. Peaches come in freestone or clingstone varieties depending whether or not the flesh is woven into the pit; and white or yellow flesh. White peaches generally have less acid than yellow ones and thus taste a little sweeter.
The Sun Crest Peach is so special that it was placed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a catalogue of heritage foods that aims to preserve traditional varieties. David Mas Masumoto is a peach grower near Fresno, CA, and writer who wistfully narrates his story of farming and how he saved the heirloom Sun Crest Peach from obscurity. California peaches had fallen out of commercial favor and his family orchard was on the brink of being bulldozed when he first wrote about his situation for the The Los Angeles Times. Peach fans from all over the world asked him to save the peach. He chronicles his journey as an organic farmer in his book, Epitaph for a Peach. “In trying to save my Sun Crest peaches, I discover that they are more than just food, they are part of a permanence, a community with the past. People who enjoy my peaches understand what juicy, sweet ones taste like. … My peaches find a home with these folks, a touchstone to their past,” Masumoto writes.
Every region offers dozens, if not hundreds, of peach and nectarine varieties. Nectarines are also Prunus Persica, but have a smooth, fuzz-less skin. Their names often run in families because nurseries issue trees in groups of family names such as the Stellar series: Risingstar, Blazingstar, Starfire, and Allstar. White-fleshed peaches have cornered the snow names market: Arctic Star, Klondike, and Snow Angel. White peaches and the squashed-looking Donut, or Saturn, Peaches may seem new fangled, but actually have their roots in ancient Asia.
Stone fruit are “climacteric” fruit that ripens after picking. Freshly picked they will be firm. Keep peaches on the counter for a few days until they give softly to the touch. Ripe fruit is best eaten, or jarred, but it can be held in the fridge for a few days although you will lose some flavor and texture. Overripe? Dip your peach in boiling water to remove the skin and cut it up for cobbler or add to yogurt. If you want to freeze it, remember to sprinkle with lemon juice to keep it from browning.
Peaches are delicate – the less handling the better. Ed Magee, who supplies The FruitGuys with White Lady Peaches, explains: “They come off the tree, go from the tote into boxes in the packing shed, and I drive them to the FruitGuys.” The season is just starting for Ed (he and his family pictured right) in his Vernalis, CA orchard and it looks like a good one. “We go to bed [after picking since dawn] and the trees don’t even look like we touched them.”
4 ripe peaches
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 sprigs fresh thyme (leaves only)
Sugar to taste (if desired)
Peel and cut peaches into bite-sized pieces in a pretty bowl. Add fresh thyme leaves. Squeeze lemon juice onto peaches and mix gently. Add sugar, if desired, to taste.
Peaches & Wine Dessert
Sugar to taste (if desired)
Peel and cut one peach into each glass. Just cover with your favorite red wine. Add sugar, if desired, to taste. Enjoy with a spoon.
- Heidi Lewis