Sunday, August 26, 2012

Apple #600: Peaches

I recently got some distressing news. Peaches ripen this time of year, and I often go home to where the peaches grow in abundance in the orchards.  A lady down the road grows and sells the largest, sweetest, most delicious peaches I have ever had. But my mom tells me that this year there is nothing out front of her place except a sign saying, "No peaches. Frozen out. See you next year."

None of these this year.  None.
(Photo from Tie Dye Travels)

My mom further tells me that all the local places that make homemade pies and which usually have peach pies to spare--this year they have hardly any.  One place will only sell it by the slice. They don't have enough peaches to sell whole peach pies. At another place, you can buy a whole peach pie but it will set you back $35.

My dad tells me that the dearth of peaches is not due to the drought but rather to the very early warm temperatures we had this spring which got the blossoms to pop out, but then there was a freeze that zapped them, so hardly any blossoms became peaches.

Knowing that there are hardly any of these magnificent peaches to be had has got me pining for them even more than usual.  So here is my ode to the ripe and wonderful peach.

The Unripe Peach

But first I must sing my lament to all the peaches ruined by agribusiness.

This is a very unripe peach. I got this from my local grocery store, and it's typical of most peaches available at grocery stores. There's hardly any juice coming out of this thing, the flesh is so hard you can scrape it with your fingernail, there's no softness, no juicy translucence. It's so tough it's almost woody in texture. Bah. This could have been a beautiful peach.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • The majority of peaches for sale in the grocery store are travesties. They give peaches a bad name. They are an insult to peaches.
  • These poor peaches are picked way too early, long before the fruit is ripe. This is because, when the fruit is green, it is still hard and therefore less likely to get bruised in transit. Since these peaches are destined to be shipped to the far-flung corners of the country, shipping concerns outweigh all other concerns. Like taste. And flavor. And, by the way, nutrition.
  • So the hard, green peaches are boxed up and put into refrigerated cars to keep them cool so they will not ripen on the long journey to your grocery store.  They're unpacked and stacked in nice neat piles in your produce section and there, finally, they begin to ripen.  Kind of.

Peaches get stacked on top of each other in the grocery store and wish, wish, wish they could ripen.
(Photo from freshlife)

  • But what really happens is that, for nearly every single one of those stunted, chilled peaches in the perfectly stacked pile, the true ripening process has already been interrupted and altered. Now the peaches will soften, kind of, but they won't develop the sugars in the same slow way. The fruit will not slowly become saturated with juices but instead will get soggy and pithy. Hardly any flavor will develop.  
  • If you buy a couple, hoping they will get better, and bring them home to let them ripen further, soon the bumps that the fruit sustained in transit will now appear as bruises. But the rest of the fruit will still feel too hard. So you'll give the peach another day or two. Now the bruises will become full-on bad spots and the rest of the fruit will be a pithy, disappointing mess. Toss it out.
  • To prove to you that I'm not making this up, here's what one produce distributor has to say about most peaches sold in this country:
"It's unfortunate that many of our peaches are bred to have superior shelf life and exterior color," says Karen Caplan, chief executive of Frieda's Inc., a Los Alamitos, Calif., high-end distributor of imported and domestic produce. "The growers don't focus on flavor. They refrigerate them in transit, put them on the shelf, and they go mealy."  [WSJ]
  • And here's what one farmer says:
"The whole fruit industry in this country is about decorating stores," says John Driver, a Modesto, Calif., apricot grower who sends his fruit to farmers markets around San Francisco. "They're looking for size, color and hardness, but people don't want to eat the things."  [WSJ]

Sigh.  Enough of the sadness.  Now I will sing the glories of the truly well-ripened peach.
  • A tree-ripened, fresh peach will be somewhat soft to the touch but when you cut into it, you will discover that the flesh is wonderfully soft and yielding. 
  • Juice will run down your hands and wrist. When you bite into it, juice will run down your chin.
  • The sweetness of the peach will fill your mouth and you'll feel that delicate piquancy that is unique to the peach at the back of your mouth. You will not be able to keep yourself from making hummy yummy noises of delight.
  • I am not the only one who feels this way, either. One agricultural extension person, in the midst of a very dry account of how to grow and raise peaches could not resist saying, "Nothing compares to the taste of tree-ripe peaches."
  • I don't mean to be a snob about this. I only mean to say that a well-ripened peach is like the nectar of the gods. Everyone deserves to taste something that delicious at least once. More than once. Every summer.

Here is what the inside of a nicely-ripened peach looks like. See how the outer edges are glistening with juice?  See how the edges look softer and gushier than the rest of the fruit? Actually, this one probably could have stood to ripen a touch more, but in general, that lovely glistening softness is the signal that this wondrous fruit is ready to eat.
(Photo from Hanna Lulu's Blog)

How to Choose a Good One
  • If you are lucky enough to be able to pick peaches yourself, you will know the peach is ripe when you twist the fruit gently on its stem and it comes away in your hand. If you have to tug or pull, that jessie is not ready yet. Leave it for another day and go on to the next one.
  • Don't press down with the tips of your fingers because that will leave bruises. Use your whole hand and cradle that peach with your palm. Peaches like to be held.

This is how to hold a peach and pick it. If the peach doesn't come away from the branch easily, leave it.
(Photo from Michigan Peach Sponsors)

  • If, like most of us, you have to select from peaches that someone else has picked, look first at the color of the fruit. There shouldn't be any green on the skin.
  • But sometimes even peaches that don't show any green are still not ripe. How to distinguish those?
  • Sometimes a lot of yellow will indicate that the peach isn't quite ready yet, but yellow can be misleading.  Some varieties of peaches do have more yellow to the skin than pink or blush or red (in fact the better, original peaches are more yellow than red or pink). So yellow isn't always the best indicator because sometimes it means good, and sometimes it means not-yet-ripe.

Look, ma, no green! If you were going on color alone, you might think this peach is ripe. But it is very not ripe.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Peaches also get fatter and rounder as they ripen.  Some varieties come to a little elfin point at the bottom, and as they ripen, the point gets less sharp until it softens out to a little bump. But not every type of peach has that point on the bottom, so shape is not always the best indicator either.
  • Mainly, go by touch.  If they feel hard and unyielding--not ready.  They should feel soft and heavy.
  • That said, a good peach should have some firmness to it.  You don't want it to be too ripe.  You should feel some give when you apply gentle pressure, then firmness beneath.  
  • Don't stand there squeezing the life out of those freddies. Apply gentle pressure and when you feel some give, you'll know you've got a good one.
  • And of course, go by smell. If you can smell a lovely peachy aroma coming off the fruit, it's ready.

Here is more juicy peach ripeness. The edges where the pit has been taken away are translucent and gleaming with juice.  Oh, I am quivering with yearning for a bite of fresh, ripe peach.
(Photo from Confessions of a Makeup Fiend)

  • When you get the peaches home, spread out a paper towel on your table or counter top and place the peaches stem-end down on the paper towel. Don't stack them but place them individually.  This way, the weight of one peach on another won't cause any bruising, and they will ripen & soften nicely at room temperature.
  • But you'll want to eat them as soon as possible. If you did put them in the refrigerator, they'd probably only last about a week before they got mushy.
  • The best way to cut a peach is to run your knife along the handy groove in the peach, in a circle all the way around the fruit. Be sure the cut deep enough so that the knife approaches the pit most of the way around. Then put down the knife, grasp each half of the peach in each hand (by the palm, not the fingertips), and twist.  The peach will separate very nicely from the pit and you'll have two smooth halves to bite into.

The best way to cut into a peach, demonstrated on a very unripe peach. If this were ripe, there would be juice dripping everywhere. Wonderful, delicious juicy juiceness. But no. Dry as a bone.
(Photos by the Apple Lady)

  • The term "freestone" does not designate a variety of peaches but rather a feature, which is that the fruit separates relatively easily from the pit. Saying you're about to eat a freestone peach is like saying you're going to take a ride in a convertible. Saying you're going to eat a freestone Red Haven would be like saying you're going to go for a ride in a convertible Trans Am.
  • Nearly every variety of peach sold in stores and most peaches grown locally are freestone peaches. Most people just don't like the hassle of tearing the pit away from the flesh.
  • The opposite of freestone, by the way, is cling, which means the peach clings to the stone. Most canned peaches are identified as cling peaches. 
  • (Full disclosure: I used to think that canned peaches were called "cling" because of the odd way that the corn syrup & juice makes the peach slices seem to cling to each other.)

This is what eating a peach should be like. Messy and juicy and fantastic.
(Photo from Backseat Gourmet)

  • White flesh vs yellow flesh is another distinction people are making these days.  Again, the color of the flesh is a feature that is characteristic of some varieties.
  • White-flesh peaches have a higher sugar content and they're even more fragile than the yellow-flesh varieties. Which says to me that the grocery store is absolutely not the place to buy white-flesh peaches.
  • Here are just a few of the 300+ varieties of peaches grown in the US:
    • Redhaven (most widely planted)
    • Loring
    • Gold Dust
    • Golden Jubilee
    • Summer Gold
    • Summer Lady
    • Ryan Sun
    • Big Red
    • Cal Red
    • Autumn Prince
  • Some of these grow best in the Midwest; others are better-suited to the southern Atlantic; still others grow best in California.

These peaches are from Georgia.
(Photo from Wikipedia

  • About the fuzz. I know a lot of people really dislike the fuzz. Truthfully, it can be a bit aggravating. If you wash the peach well in warm water, you can rub off most of the fuzz. Then if you cut the peach in half and bite into the half, rather than sinking your face into the whole peach, the fuzz will be less bothersome.
  • But why's it there in the first place? Nobody can say for sure.  The best or at least most prevalent guess seems to be that it helps protect the peach against invading bugs like aphids.
  • If you really hate the fuzz and you want to avoid it at all costs, eat a nectarine instead.
  • People say that the only difference between peaches and nectarines is that nectarines have smooth skin. But the skin seems a little thicker and the flesh seems to be more substantial and less delicate.
  • Genetically speaking, the smooth skin of the nectarine is a recessive trait.

Smooth-skinned nectarines on the left, fuzzy-skinned peaches on the right.
(Photo from Two Fat Bellies)
  • People call peaches the queen of fruits. They don't say that about nectarines.
  • Here's a really magnificent way to eat peaches. Besides just eating them raw, that is.
  • Cut up a couple of peaches and put them in a small saucepan. Heat them over medium heat and stir. 
  • As they get warm, the fruit will start to break down. Keep stirring until they've become a sauce.
  • Pour warm over vanilla ice cream. You will not believe that anything on this earth could taste so heavenly.

My own peach-eating and -picking experience
Michigan Peach Sponsors, How can I tell if a peach is ripe?, What are the differences between a peach and a nectarine?, Peach facts and picking tips
Stan Sesser, "The Best Peach on Earth," The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2009
Rodney Bosch "Peaches, Abundant and Cheap, Can Often Fall Short on Flavor," Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1994
Gary Gao, Growing Peaches and Nectarines in the Home Landscape, Ohio State University Extension Fact sheet
Bill Shane, Growing Peaches in the Home Garden, Michigan State University Extension
Mac's Pride FAQs, McLeod Farms
Susan Westmoreland, "Freestone vs. Cling Peaches," Good Housekeeping



  2. Uh-oh, I don't know that episode. That's not a bad-looking shirt, though.


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