Top | First Person

The perfect peach

(article, Christina Eng)

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A woman I know has given up on peaches. She wouldn’t mind the perfect peach, she says. Really, who would? But she has had enough mediocre ones to be skeptical. 

She talks of fruit. I think of love.

“I find that peaches are one of those fruits that disappoint me more often than not,” she says. “I can’t stand it when they’re mealy. So I tend to stick to other stone fruits, especially nectarines and plums.”

Me? I’ve gone into a peach phase, shopping for peaches, scanning produce aisles at neighborhood markets, and looking for them on day trips north to Sonoma County. I’ve been tasting peaches, holding them softly in my hands before grabbing a bowl from the cupboard. I’ve been eating them fresh, and eating them cooked.

[%image reference-image float=right width=425 caption="A slice of the perfect peach?"]

With a recipe from Jamie Oliver’s [%bookLink code=1401308244 "The Naked Chef Takes Off"], I make peach pudding. To the British, “pudding” really just means “dessert” — in this case, a moist, buttery cake with peaches. I’ve also been tempted with recipes from other sources for peach upside-down cakes, peach muffins, and peach pancake topping. 

The chastising voice in my head — the one that tracks carbs and calories — is having a hard time keeping up.

By many accounts, peaches were first cultivated in China. They figure prominently in Chinese literature dating to approximately 1000 B.C., with poems and songs describing pink peach blossoms and trees ripe with peaches. Traditionally, peaches are said to symbolize strength and longevity. Is it any wonder, then, that the red envelopes given during Lunar New Year celebrations often depict peaches, or that Chinatown bakeries generally fill their birthday cakes with slices of canned peaches?

Peaches later showed up in Persia (present-day Iran), where they were known as “Persian apples,” and, by the first century A.D., in Rome. From Italy, they traveled through Europe and the Americas, where settlers planted them across the East Coast. By the 18th century, peaches had appeared in parts of the South, and were likely introduced to California by Spanish missionaries.

Yellow peaches have a certain tang to them, while lower-acid white peaches taste of pure sweetness. Freestone peaches — so-called because the flesh separates easily from the pit — get eaten fresh out of hand, while clingstone peaches are mostly channeled into the canning industry.

Peaches are fragile, easily bruised and broken. So my friend’s hesitation over purchasing peaches does not surprise me. There is a window between the time peaches truly sweeten on the tree, I tell her, and the time they get to us; the smaller the window, the better. The trick perhaps would be to buy peaches at roadside farm stands. But living in a city as I do, this is unlikely.

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h1.How to pick a peach

"To select good peaches, check the fruits’ background color. It should be golden, never green. Look also for a distinct orange hue. To store peaches that are still too firm, leave them at room temperature for a little while. Refrigerate them only after they have begun to ripen; chilling peaches that are far from ripe will turn their flesh dry and mealy. 

To cook with peaches, peel them the way you would peel tomatoes. Score an X on the bottom of the peaches, then blanch the fruits quickly in boiling water. Transfer them immediately to a bowl of ice water, then peel away the skin with your fingers. If you’re cutting peaches in advance, add squirts of lemon juice to the slices to keep them from browning."

— From the Russ Parsons book How to Pick a Peach.

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Most of the fruits that show up in supermarkets across the country were harvested long ago, too early for them to be any good when we finally get our teeth into them. It’s an issue Russ Parsons addresses in How to Pick a Peach. 

“The farther away from you something is grown,” he writes, “the longer it must spend in some truck or railroad car getting to you, and the greater are the odds that what eventually arrives will be less than what it could have been.”

I suppose I don’t realize how terrific it is in the Bay Area, where tons of peaches grow seasonally in the hot, humid Central Valley, halfway between northern and southern California, reducing their travel time to me in Oakland. I don’t live that far from such fabulous peach growers as Frog Hollow Farm, in Brentwood, or Dry Creek Peach and Produce, in Healdsburg. I have always taken such peach things for granted. (Georgia is nicknamed “The Peach State,” but California leads the orchard now in peach production, growing more than 60 percent of the peaches in this country.)

For years, like my friend, I avoided peaches. Call it a peach pause. I ate cantaloupes and honeydew melons instead; I snacked on red apples and green grapes. Like her, I enjoyed nectarines and plums.

Though other people praised peaches, I didn’t listen. In Epitaph for a Peach, for example, David Mas Masumoto, a third-generation farmer in Fresno, pays poetic tribute to Sun Crest peaches so luscious and delicious “the juices trickle down your cheeks and dangle on your chin.” But I couldn’t appreciate the fuzz.

In [%bookLink code=0385514131 "The Pat Conroy Cookbook"], best-selling author Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides) reminisces about South Carolina peaches, particularly ones from the Sanders Peach Stand in York County just shy of the North Carolina border. 

“A ripe peach is a thing perfect unto itself,” he writes, “and the fruit is a tree’s way of expressing devotion to sunshine. In their season, I gorge myself with fresh peaches, which always make me happy that I found South Carolina when I was a boy, or that it found me.” Lovely sentiments, of course. But still I didn’t believe. 

Until one afternoon a couple of summers ago, when I ate the peach that changed my life. 

After an appointment with the dentist, I decided to treat myself to fruit from the farmers’ market around the corner from her office, the way a child might get a lollipop following a visit to the doctor. My teeth had gotten a clean bill of health, and I wanted to celebrate. For whatever reason, I thought I would try a peach.

I carried my treasure home and, leaning over the kitchen sink, took a bite. Nice and bright, ripe and golden and slightly sinful, it was gloriously sweet and juicy and syrupy. I was stunned. Bite after bite, its juices dribbled down my chin and across my hand. I found myself licking my fingers, shamelessly, hoping to savor every drop of glorious excess.

Finally, I understood what people had been saying all along: how extraordinarily good peaches could be. Of course, in my stupor, I neglected to note the variety of peach I was eating, or the name of the farm that grew it, or the face of its vendor. 

Will I ever encounter another peach like it? Or are we entitled only to one great love? Are we allowed just one moment in our lives when every relevant factor falls remarkably into place?

That peach became the fruit against which I measure all others. A peach that, were it a person, might compel me to pull up stakes and follow it. That the possibility exists can be thrilling enough, I think.

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h1.Featured recipes




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I want to tell my friend not to give up yet on peaches, not to dismiss them entirely. One day, I suspect, she, too, will eat a fruit that shocks her palate, a single peach whose aroma and texture will astound her. 

She, too, will be smitten, and spend subsequent summers trying to locate equally superb fruit. She will go through her own peach phase, shopping for them, tasting them, baking with them. 

Like me, she might buy pounds of peaches at the produce market and place them on her kitchen counter, stem side down. She might give them very soft squeezes occasionally, to monitor their ripeness. 

She might stash them in her refrigerator bin to curtail their ripening, then eat them out of hand or with vanilla yogurt and granola. Each peach, like each date, each love, could be excellent. 

And she might toy, of course, with the idea of dessert — a galette, perhaps, or a cobbler topped with scoops of ice cream. The quest will happily consume her. Everything, she discovers, would be just peachy.

p(bio). [christina_eng@hotmail.com "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California.


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