Real Food Encyclopedia | Peaches
The peach is an ancient Chinese relic, dating to 5th century BCE, when it was mentioned throughout a collection of poetry by Confucius. The peach was highly revered and continues to play an important role in the folklore of the Chinese people. Known as “tao,” the peach is the most sacred plant of the Chinese Taoists, and is considered a magic fruit and a symbol of immortality, reflected in the “Peach Blossom Spring,” an essay by a Chinese poet during the 4th century BCE.
From China, the peach traveled to Persia and then Greece, and into the rest of Europe, thanks to peach lover Alexander the Great. The peach came to Mexico in the early to mid-1500s via Spanish explorers. Meanwhile, Franciscan monks brought the peach to coastal Georgia and north Florida. By 1570, the newly settled monks were growing peaches 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 peaches 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; peach 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 in the mid-1800s. Delaware’s success was short-lived; by the 1890s, a blight obliterated much of the peach acreage, and now Georgia is what we all think of when we think of US 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, Ga., where the “world’s largest peach cobbler” is served each June. In Gaffney, South Carolina, every July since 1977. And in Middletown, Delaware, where the Old-Tyme Peach Festival.
- The peach has official status in several states: as the state fruit of South Carolina, since 1984; as the tree fruit of Alabama, since 2006; as the state fruit of Georgia (since 1995); and as the state flower (peach blossom) of Delaware, since 1896.
- Peach Melba, the iconic dessert of peaches, ice cream and raspberry puree, was the result of a friendship between 19th century French chef Auguste Escoffier and Australian opera diva Nellie Melba. According to the story, Escoffier created the peche Melba in honor of the singer, who when performing in London in the 1890s would stay at the Savoy Hotel, where Escoffier was the chef.
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.
Whether or not you can pull a peach apart depends on whether it’s a freestone or a clingstone, the latter used for commercial canning.
When shopping, give your peach 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 peach. A ready-to-eat peach should be fragrant and invite you in.
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.”
Because the peach is so fragile and perishable, it is critical to select fruit that truly is free of blemishes and bruises.
Sustainability of Peaches
According to the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides to Produce, the conventional peach is one of the top six offenders for pesticide residue, earning it a spot on the group’s Dirty Dozen Plus list. (Nectarines came in at number three). Because of this, it’s a good idea 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.
Meanwhile, efforts to preserve heirloom varieties have continued for the past few decades, in part due to the efforts 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 Sun Crest 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 February, you can bet it traveled thousands of miles to meet you. Talk about jet lag!
China, where the peach got its start with the name “tao,” is the word’s leading producer, followed by Italy and the United States. Here at home, California leads the way, followed by South Carolina and Georgia, where there is an intensely pitted rivalry across state lines.
Storing Fresh Peaches
Make no mistake; the peach is highly perishable. If it needs a little time to soften up, keep out of the refrigerator and out of direct sunlight. To buy a little time for a ripe peach, stick 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 even if rubbing up against each other.
Cooking with Peaches
- To peel peaches for pie, jam (or just because): 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; you will see the skin start to give way. With a pair of tongs, extract the peaches, one by one, and transfer to a boil of ice water, to cool and stop cooking. The skins should peel like a champ.
Peach lovers will happily eat a peach au naturel, over the sink, juices running down the chin and all.
With just a little more prep, peaches 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, too, and partners just as nicely with basil and mozzarella. Peach caprese, anyone?
The peach also works well when grilled, especially if it’s a little on the firm side. This adds some smoky notes and carnalizes the natural sugars in the fruit. Try pairing grilled peaches with goat cheese or drizzled with honey.
And for the classic sweet recipes, there’s always cobbler, galette, pie, ice cream and jam.
With peaches (and most fruits), you can preserve the fruits by the classic methods of jam, jelly and puree, storing the finished product in the freezer. Or try pickling the peaches for a sweet-sour take on the fruit. Combine 1 tablespoon cider vinegar with ½ teaspoon of mustard, and add to a sliced peach. Marinate in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving.
A medium-sized peach contains about 58 calories, give or take a few, and is a decent source of Vitamins A, C and E. There’s even a little bit of protein thrown in. But the pigments that give a peach its gorgeous orange-rosey hue are a respectable source of disease-fighting polyphenols and showing great promise in tackling certain types of cancer. A 2009 study links peach extracts as a serious contender in fighting off estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells. Could it be that canned peaches are more nutrient dense than fresh? A recently published industry-funded study says yes.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the peach seed (enclosed in the stone or pit),when ground, is used to treat constipation and menstrual problems. On the flip side, the seed is poisonous, as it contains naturally-occurring cyanide.