Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Peaches

Editor's Note: As part of the launch of our brand-spanking new Seasonal Food Guide (and app!), along with National Farmers Market week, we're highlighting some of the delicious seasonal food you're likely to see at the market near you! 

I was seventeen and adventuring through Greece, a graduation gift from my late aunt Ginny. I still have faded photos that document my visit to the black-sand beaches of Santorini and the ancient ruins at Delphi, but what's firmly etched in mind is the enormous peach I met for breakfast at a café in Athens. Bigger than my head, it was practically a meal in itself, sitting on a plate with a fork and knife. As I tucked in, I remember the rush of honey-ed (or was it honey suckle?) peach perfume fill my nostrils and an explosion of juice spurt onto my cheeks and my little jean skirt. All the other details escape me, but it hardly matters, as I was out on a date with a peach and loving every minute of it, and still treasure the memory, even 30 years later.

Like the mango, a ripe peach invites a sensory experience that the world has celebrated since antiquity. Is it possible, as The Oxford Companion to Food suggests, that "no fruit is more laden with erotic metaphor?"

And like other fully charged sensory experiences, a ripe peach is an excellent example of living fully in the moment, wherever that may be. As true peach lovers have learned, the peach will reward you with sweet kisses when eaten at home but will fuss and get mealy-mouthed when asked to travel.

Brief History of Peaches

The peach is an ancient Chinese relic, dating to  5th century BC. 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 BC.

From China, the peach traveled to Persia and then Greece, and into the rest of Europe, thanks to peach lover Alexander the Great.

The fruit caught the attention of scholars and botanists throughout millennia.

In the History of Plants, the earliest surviving botanical publication, Theoprastus (370-288 BC) mentions the "Persian apple."  By the 1st century, Roman scholar and naturalist Pliny the Elder describes several varieties of peaches in Naturalis Historia.

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.

Thomas Jefferson had as many as 38 varieties of peaches growing in the South Orchard at Monticello. In a letter dated in 1815 to his granddaughter, he wrote  that "we abound in the luxury of the peach," and that  Cate, one of the Monticello slaves, "is busy drying peaches for you."

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. Presently, there are four operating orchards in Delaware  producing 2 million pounds annually.

Factual Nibbles

There are three long-running peach festivals of note:

The peach has official status in several states: the state fruit of South Carolina, since 1984. the tree fruit of Alabama, since 2006. the state fruit of Georgia (since1995), which is also known as the "Peach State," a nickname acquired after WWII, when peaches began to show promise as an alternative to the cotton industry. 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.

The word "peach" has enjoyed an interesting journey, finding its way into colloquial expressions and usage.

To describe something as "peachy" is to deem it excellent or "unusually fine," according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, later updated with "peachy-keen," probably in the early 1950s.

"Peach fuzz" refers to the early signs of a facial hair on pre-pubescent boys.

"Peaches and cream" describes a highly pleasant state of affairs.

"You're a peach" is another way to say "thank you" or "gee, you're swell," but the origins of this expression remain murky.

(For more etymological tidbits of the food variety, I highly recommend having a look at Fruitcakes & Couch Potatoes, and Other Delicious Expressions by Christine Ammer.)

Peach Cultivation

Botanically, we're talking about Prunus persica, a close relative of other stone fruits - apricots, cherries, plums - as well as the almond.  It is part of the large and extensive Rose family, which makes it a distant relative of strawberries, raspberries, pears and quince.

As you might suspect, the nectarine is like a fraternal twin, which goes by the name P. persica var. nectarina, sometimes known as the "shaveless peach." Most historians agree that the second name "Persica" refers to the Romans, when naming the fruit, assuming its home of origin to be Persia.

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.

Given the downright competitive devotion to the peach, it should go noted that several varieties of peach go virtually ignored and are on the verge of extinction. Interested in being a peach savior? See if you can track down any of the following peach varieties (and then plant your peach pits!).

  • The Belle of Georgia Peach is original to the garden of a Mr. Gill in Lower Manhattan. Not your standard place for a peach tree, and making it all the more disheartening that it not only no longer exists in Mr. Gill's backyard, but across the vast majority of the country. A few Belle of Georgia peach trees safely remain in the orchards at Thomas Jefferson's historic property in Charlottesville, VA.
  • As with many peach varieties, the Rio Oso Gem Peach drops from its tree when it's ripe, bruising upon entry. The joy in a perfectly ripe peach makes this the inevitable challenge of late summer, and is especially challenging for growers who have to remain vigilant and keep their peaches unscathed.
  • The glorious Sun Crest Peach is a biggun. It's colorful, fragrant and full of juice, but very precarious when shipping. Thus, distributors are resistant to handling the variety, leaving only one remaining family farm in San Joaquin Valley that is willing to hand-select and pack each Sun Crest individually.

Peach Seasonality

Peach season runs May through August, with a little wiggle room, depending on the weather and climate, but if you've picked up a peach in February, you can bet it traveled thousands of miles to meet you. Talk about jet lag!

Environmental Impact of Growing Peaches

In the world of conventional produce, the peach is like a float at the pesticide parade. According to the EWG's 2013 Shoppers' Guide to Pesticides to Produce, the conventional peach is one of the top five offenders for pesticide residue, earning it a spot on the group's Dirty Dozen Plus list.  (Imported nectarines came in at #8 ; domestic at #18).
In this series, we talk a lot about eating organic whenever possible, but when it comes to peaches, we urge taking 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). These days, heirloom varieties  are more the norm than the exception at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, ensuring a future of peachy biodiversity.

Peach Characteristics 

Its flesh will be either yellow or white, which does determine flavor. 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.

For something a little different, there's the easy-to-eat donut peach, a genetic mutation with a flat top, resembling a tire or bagel.

All of these, no matter the stone, the flesh or the shape, possess the same often-annoying fuzzy exterior. 

What to look for

Perhaps in this case, it's what to smell for. 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," similar to the inner part of a woman's foot, below the ankle.  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.

Peach Nutrition

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.

What to Do with Peaches

As we'll discuss below, there's a slew of ways to enjoy the peach, both raw and cooked. But there is one thing you probably should not do with a raw peach: Take it on the road. Unlike the sturdy apple and the trusty tangerine, the peach, in all its messy glory, is a bad choice for lunch pails and backpacks and general on-the-run eating. With a peach, you'd best stay put.

How to Store Peaches

Make no mistake; the peach is highly perishable. I remember from my days working a fruit stand how often we'd have to keep tabs on the peaches, to make sure they weren't growing beards, particularly on extremely hot days.

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.

Peach Cooking Tips

A very unscientific survey among Facebook peach lovers revealed that the majority prefers eating a peach au naturel, over the sink.  While some prefer wearing a bib, most happily anticipate the inevitable mess, "the juice running down my chin, grinning from ear to ear."

Then there's the camp with a sweet tooth, who wait all year for cobbler, galette, "sour cream peach pie," ice cream and jam .

When I'm not standing over the sink, I like to pair a peach with 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 gets exceptionally high grill marks, working either as a smoky side or an unctuous caramelized sweet ending. I have pals who finish grilled peaches off with goat cheese or drizzled with honey.

I also like the sound of quick/refrigerator pickles, as suggested in The Perfect Peach, the newly published peach-centric cookbook by Mas Masumoto and his family:

Combine 1 tablespoon cider vinegar with ½ teaspoon of mustard, and add to a sliced peach, and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving.

To peel peaches for pie, jam (or just because), blanch for a few minutes: 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.

Recipe: Butter Lettuce Cups with Peaches and Blue Cheese

Reprinted with permission from The Perfect Peach by Marcy, Nikiko, and David Mas Masumoto, copyright ©2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Serves 4 to 6

Juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 small head butter or Bibb lettuce
1 peach with give, halved, pitted and sliced
½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1 ½ to 2 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

To make the dressing, stir together the lemon juice and oil, then stir in salt and pepper to taste.

Separate the lettuce leaves, selecting 4 to 6 leaves that form a nice cup shape, then rinse and pat dry. If the leaves are not very crisp, plunge them into ice water for a few minutes, drain and pat dry.

Place the lettuce leaves in a large bowl, drizzle with the dressing, and toss gently to coat evenly.

Place each lettuce cup in the center of a salad plate. Fan an equal number of the peach slices on one side of each cup. Dividing them evenly, sprinkle the walnuts and blue cheese inside the cups. Serve immediately.

This post was originally published in July 2013.