Peaches are greatly underestimated. Here’s how to choose the perfect option

When it comes to peaches, I’m with Samuel Johnson, whose good friend Mrs. Threll said I should eat seven or eight large peaches “in the morning before breakfast”, and then eat more after dinner. Until then, Dr. Johnson complained that he “never had what he wanted from the wall fruit” (the old English name for pit fruits such as peaches and apricots, because they were grown on the walls to give the plant support and warmth).

There is a reason why the word “peachy” is synonymous with the word excellent or good. The experience of eating a ripe peach is like no other fruit, the gentle fluff in your hand, the fragrant juices dripping through. Whether they are yellow or white, round or flat, peaches can be so fragrant and melting that they resemble gelato grown on a tree. There doesn’t seem to be enough of them before summer is over.

Peaches and cream are underrated as a summertime treat compared to strawberries. When you add strawberries to the cream, the acid in the berries seems to counteract the delicacy of the cream, while the soft peaches — chopped and sugary slices — seem to blend in with the cream, both in terms of texture and fragrance.

I felt confident in my love of peaches and cream when I read nose diving by Harold McGee, a fascinating scientific examination of aroma that describes how both flavors are composed largely of molecules called lactones (also found in coconut, apricots, and some nuts). As McGee wrote, “Serve the peaches with cream and you double the lactonic richness.”

The hardest part is getting your hands on a peach worthy of that name, at least in the UK, where it comes in two categories, great and disappointing. It is not always easy to distinguish between them. Sometimes a mix of unpromising supermarket peaches (or nectarines, which are really just a variety of soft-skinned peaches) turn luscious after a couple of days on a sunny windowsill, but some peaches get mushy without ever sweetening. Your best bet is to look closely at the skin and avoid any peaches with even a bit of green. in encyclopedia cook Tom Stubart notes that “if it was green when you bought it, it would never ripen in the house.”

In TS Eliot’s 1915 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the narrator asks, “Do I dare eat a peach?” , indicating that its meat may be too juicy to eat in public. Literature books in the Victorian and Edwardian eras advised polite eaters to always eat peaches with a fork to avoid making a mess. Today, Westerners may hesitate for the opposite reason, fearing that shopkeepers are too tough, weak, or pungent. You might be hedging your bets by buying a “ripe and ready” package from the supermarket cooler only to find that the cold has killed off the flavor.

© Susie Howell

Delicious peaches are still available in Britain in the summer months, mostly from Spain and Italy, although 2022 has been a tough year for Spanish farmers after crops were damaged by severe April frosts. Ixta Belfrage is a chef who has collaborated with Yotam Ottolenghi and just published her wonderful first book, Mezcla: recipes for excitement.

One of her recipes is the easiest and most refreshing peach sorbet she’s ever made. You freeze peaches in chunks (no peeling needed) before blending them in a food processor into an aromatic syrup made from rooibos tea, sugar, water, and lemon peel. Slushy pink sherbet that tastes like Iced Dream Peach Tea.

The recipe is inspired by Belfrage’s childhood spent in Italy with her British-Brazilian family. She remembers Italian summer peaches as “incredibly fragrant and intoxicating” with a red peel and a “deep yellow egg color” inside. They went for fruit salads, croquettes, and pancakes. Now that she lives in London, Belfrage tells me she can still find sweet, savory peaches as long as she picks them in person, mostly from vegetable vendors (she loves picking at Newington Green Fruit & Vegetables) rather than online.

I suspect we’re more disappointed with bad peaches than we are with rotten bananas, because even the greatest Cavendish bananas are only mediocre, while perfect peaches are, well, perfect, with the flesh quality described by William Morris as “ripe.” in Duchess of Malfi Apricots and other literary fruits (2001), Robert Balter shows how many writers have been inspired by the furry and adorable look of the peach.

As with the current use of the peach emoji, many poems depicting peaches over the centuries have been obscene, using the cheeks and slits in the fruit as a highly imprecise metaphor for the curves of the human body. Even descriptions of peaches in fruit catalogs can get very hot under the collar. In 1851, an American horticulturist named Ebenezer Emmons wrote evocative lines about the early Crawford plums that my editors dearly prefer on google.

In Asia glory peach It is now the most underrated and where the consumption of peaches, which has fallen in the UK and the US, continues to pick up. Peach has been cultivated in Japan for 8000 years and in China for more than 7000 years. From there, they traveled to Greece, and then to Rome, where they got the name Prunus Persicabased on the misconception that the fruit was Persian, not Chinese.

They also found favor in France and Spain and eventually traveled with the Spaniards to America. But no matter where in the world peaches have traveled, Chinese food culture remains what gives the fruit the most (mostly white peaches instead of yellow). China is now by far the largest producer of peaches in the world, accounting for more than 60 percent of the world’s peach and nectarine crop.

In China, the peach is not a sex symbol but rather a symbol of long life (and wealth and good luck). “The roundness symbolizes infinity,” Taiwanese-American food writer Clarissa Wei tells me. The homage is that, instead of a birthday cake, a Chinese person can be given long-lived steamed peach buns (shoutao bao): thin, peach-shaped dumplings colored a nice pink color with tiny green leaves attached to each.

Wei who cookbook Made in Taiwan Published next year, it previously mentioned a master baker making intricate versions of festive peach cakes featuring a giant peach center cake surrounded by a crowd of mini peach cakes; They are decorated with colored dough to look like peach tree branches. Long life peach cakes do not contain any real peaches because cooking with them is not a real thing in Chinese cuisine.

A single honey plum – a particularly sweet variety of fruit – can sell for up to 50 yuan, about £6. Last year, a peach grower in the town of Yangshan, known as the “hometown of honey peach,” told a reporter from People Daily Online that with the advent of online shopping, business is better than ever.

“We used to sell peaches by carrying them to sidewalks and train stations,” he recalls, but now he’s bringing his fruits to customers across the country. Wei notes that peaches have a similar affection in Taiwanese food culture, even though Taiwan’s heat is not suitable for growing them (peach needs a certain number of hours at lower temperatures while it grows).

During her childhood in Los Angeles, Wei had a peach tree in her backyard and says she never ate a peach like the juice from that tree. “It was about the size of a fist. It was a cool thing,” she says. “My friends and I would climb each other’s backs and pick them.” I asked her if her mother ever cooked with them, but she said she didn’t–they ate all the peaches as soon as they arrived, straight from the tree. Culturally, I was never taught to do anything with peaches. When it’s fresh, you just want to enjoy it,” adds Wei.

Asia and the West have radically different ways of honoring the beauty of peaches. As Wei points out, “in China, there is a quest to find the perfect raw peaches,” while “in Western culture you can roast them into dumplings.” Writing about growing up in Virginia, food writer Edna Lewis noted that peach cobbler was “a wonderful hot fruit dessert of the summer season that everyone looks forward to.”

Lewis’ cobbler, which I highly recommend, is essentially a grid-shaped pie, as opposed to the “cobbler” type that is topped with a cake-like dough. (I cut back on the sugar in one touch and use butter instead of lard in the pastry.) In her version, the peach turns pink and coats the bottom layer of pastry with its delicious aroma. Lewis included cobbler as part of a menu to eat on a cool summer evening after a thunderstorm. Another idea is to crush peaches with a potato masher and add them to vanilla ice cream.

A line of peaches of different varieties

© Susie Howell

Both eastern and western approaches have their advantages. The Chinese attitude to leave alone reflects the fact that the perfect peaches cannot be improved. But there is also value in the Western belief that peaches are so large that it is worth spreading peaches around. “I don’t agree that there is no point in cooking peaches,” Belfraj says.

She loves adding it to an Italian crostata with cherries, frangipans, and polenta crust. They also find yellow peaches delicious in savory dishes, such as cheese, olive oil, or raw fish fillets, as well as lemon juice, peels, chilies, and fennel wraps. Its only condition is that whatever you do with peaches, you must start with a good one. “You can’t cook them in savory form. It’s impossible to boil or roast peaches to get the perfect soft sweetness you want,” she says. Sad to say, it’s true. There have been several times when I’ve tried to retrieve substandard peaches by boiling them with expensive vanilla pods, only to find that I’ve remade canned peaches, but less beautiful.

Somehow, the best and easiest summer dessert recipe is to put peaches in a glass of wine. It’s almost impossible to eat this with friends on a summer evening without feeling like you’re seizing the day. Time stands still when you eat a perfect peach, especially when you also drink one. As Margaret Costa wrote in it The Four Seasons Cookbook (1970): “Prick a small, white, pink peach all over with a silver fork. Put it in a large wine glass. Fill it with chilled champagne. Look at it. Drink it. Eat the peach.”

Food writer Diana Henry based an entire cookbook on this pairing, How to eat peaches (2018). Henry first came across him on a trip to Italy in her twenties, when she watched in amazement people at an adjacent table in a restaurant cutting peaches in half, tossing peaches and chopping them into cups, adding cold moscato. “Then they ate the slices, now flavored with wine, and drank the wine now saturated with peaches,” she says. Like anything containing peaches, this works best with perfect peaches. But if your peaches have to be anything less than sublime, at least have a glass of peach wine to console you.

B. Wilson is the author of The Way We Eat Now (4th Class/Basic Books)

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