Real Food Encyclopedia | Peaches
The peach is an ancient Chinese relic, dating to the fifth century BC, when it was mentioned throughout a collection of poetry by Confucius. It was highly revered and continues to play an important role in the folklore of the Chinese people. In both China and Japan, the peach is a symbol of longevity and immortality.
The fruit was introduced to North America in the mid-1500s by Spanish explorers and Franciscan monks, who began growing the fruit in St. Augustine, Florida.
Throughout the 1600s, the peach traveled north and was cultivated in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. By the mid-1700s, Native Americans were planting them in the new colony of Georgia, as well as in South Carolina. Many historians have noted that Native Americans spread seedlings from tribe to tribe. The peach was so abundant by the 1800s, American botanist John Bartram assumed it to be a native fruit.
The peach enjoyed enormous celebrity along the Atlantic coast during the 19th century, with commercial orchards cropping up in South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. Peach production was closely connected to the debut of commercial railroad transport; packing sheds were located alongside train tracks in South Carolina and Delaware for shipment to New York and beyond. By the mid-1800s, Delaware was one of the top peach producing states. The success was short-lived; by the 1890s, a blight obliterated much of Delaware’s fruit’s acreage and now Georgia is considered the iconic state for peach production (though in the past few years blueberries have topped peaches as the state’s highest grossing fruit!).
Fun Facts about Peaches:
- There are three long-running peach festivals of note: In Peach County, Georgia, where the “world’s largest peach cobbler” is served each June. In Gaffney, South Carolina, every July since 1977. And in Middletown, Delaware, home of the Old-Tyme Peach Festival.
- The fruit has official status in several states: it’s been the state fruit of South Carolina since 1984; the tree fruit of Alabama since 2006; the state fruit of Georgia since 1995; and the state flower (peach blossom) of Delaware since 1896.
What to Look for When Buying Peaches
Peach flesh will be either yellow or white. Generally speaking, the white peach tends to be sweeter, while the yellow offers a slight tang and acidity. White peaches have a more mild flavor and creamy flesh, while yellow varieties tend to be more crisp with that classic “peach” flavor. Donut peaches, also called Saturn peaches, are another common variety; they have a round, flat shape and sweet, floral flavor.
Whether or not you can pull a peach apart depends on whether it’s a freestone or a clingstone. Freestone varieties are great for baking, while the latter are used for canning or preserving.
Look for peaches that are firm, but not hard. A good peach will also be tender and have some “give.” If a peach is rock hard, it’s probably been picked too early and best left alone. As Deborah Madison wrote in her 2002 book, “Local Flavors,” “stone-hard is not the meaning of stone fruit.”
When shopping, avoid fruit with any blemishes, bruises or wrinkly skin. Look for yellow peaches with a golden color, and skip over any fruit that is tinged green. Give your fruit a smell. If you don’t catch a whiff of that signature perfume, a combination of tree blossoms and honey bee nectar (and maybe a little bit of rose), move on to the next one. A ready-to-eat peach should be fragrant and invite you in.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides to Produce, the conventional peach is one of the top offenders for pesticide residue, earning it a spot on the group’s Dirty Dozen list. (Nectarines come in even higher on the list). Because of this, it’s a good idea to take the extra steps in finding out how your favorite peaches were grown, ideally from the farmer. Your favorite farm stand, coop or farmers’ market are great places to start that conversation. Choosing organic peaches and nectarines is another good way to avoid pesticides.
Efforts to preserve heirloom varieties have continued for the past few decades, in part due to the work of California organic farmer David Mas Masumoto. His 1995 memoir “Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm,” tells the story of his attempts to save the Suncrest, an heirloom variety, from going extinct. The Suncrest has since been inducted to the Slow Food Ark of Taste.
Peach season runs May through August, with a little wiggle room, depending on the weather and climate. If you’ve picked up a peach in a grocery store in February, you can bet it traveled thousands of miles to meet you.
China, where the peach got its start with the name “tao,” is the world’s leading producer, followed by Italy and the United States. Here at home, California leads the way, followed by South Carolina, Georgia and New Jersey.
Make no mistake; the peach is highly perishable. If it needs a little time to soften, store at room temperature and out of direct sunlight. To buy a little time for a ripe peach, place it in the refrigerator, where it stops ripening. Caveat: Refrigeration invites moisture and shriveling.
Although tempting to place several almost-ripe peaches in a pretty bowl, keep in mind that the peach is a most sensitive creature and not only bruises easily but can mold if rubbing up against each other.
- To peel the fruit for pie, jam or canning: Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. With a paring knife, make an “X” incision on the bottom of each peach, and carefully submerge into the boiling water. Boil for about two minutes; until the skin starts to give way. With a slotted spoon, transfer them, one by one, to a bowl of ice water. Once cool, carefully peel skins to remove.
Peach lovers will happily eat a peach all by itself, over the sink, juices running down the chin.
With just a little more prep, they go great in summer salads; try arugula and other raw leafy greens for a welcome twist to dinner salad. It’s a great stand-in for tomatoes, and partners just as nicely with basil and mozzarella. Peach caprese, anyone?
The fruit also works well when grilled, especially if it’s a little on the firm side. This adds some smoky notes and caramelizes the natural sugars in the fruit. Try pairing grilled peaches with goat cheese or drizzled with honey. They are also great to swap in for other fruits in savory preparations: try adding the fruit to a chicken braise; along with tomatoes for a chilled gazpacho; or instead of tomatoes in the classic BLT.
As for sweet recipes, there are so many options. Very ripe peaches are perfect for ice cream, jam and simmering into sauces (try this peach caramel sauce!); firmer fruit are great for cobbler, galette and pie.
You can preserve the fruit (and most fruits) by the classic methods of making jam, jelly and butter, storing the finished product in the freezer. Or try pickling them for a sweet-sour take on the fruit. Combine 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar with 1/2 teaspoon of mustard, then toss with one sliced peach. Chill for a few hours before serving.
You can also freeze the fruit. Wash, then slice to desired size (or halve). Place in a single layer on a lined sheet tray and freeze until solid. Transfer to a reusable silicone bag or airtight container and store frozen for up to one year. You can keep the skin on or use the method above to remove it before freezing.
A medium-sized peach contains about 50 calories and is a decent source of Vitamins A and C. There’s even a little bit of protein thrown in. The pigments that give the fruit its gorgeous orange-rose hue are a respectable source of disease-fighting polyphenols and show great promise in tackling certain types of cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine, the seed (enclosed in the stone or pit) is ground and used to treat constipation and abdominal pain. The seed is poisonous, however, as it contains naturally occurring cyanide, and should not be consumed without consulting a healthcare professional.
Top photo by Ian Baldwin/Unsplash