"Peaches capture the flavor of summer," says David Mas Masumoto, a peach grower from the Fresno, California, area. "And when you bite into one, that transports you back into stories and memories of family and childhood." For many Americans, peaches symbolize the best of summertime—long, hot days refreshed by peach slices on cereal, peach ice cream, peach cobbler, peach pie and, best of all, the barely blushed, tree-ripened whole peach with its burst of sweet juices on the tongue. Good peaches tap into all the senses, Masumoto adds—there is its heady aroma when you bring a peach toward your mouth, and the senses of taste and touch when you bite into a peach and feel and taste its tantalizing juices. "And all good peaches leave a taste that people want to retain," he adds.
A native of China—and the Chinese symbol for immortality—the peach, Prunus persica, is a member of the rose family, and related to apricots, plums and almonds. The peach traveled by ancient caravans from China to Persia and then eventually to Europe. By the mid-16th century, peaches even turned up in Mexico. Soon afterward, peach fanciers took this prized fruit to the East Coast of the American colonies and then westward to California. Today, California has become the largest peach source, growing more than half of the world’s supply. For the American market, South Carolina and Georgia are the next largest peach producers.
What most American consumers may not know about this favorite fruit is that peaches fall into three categories—clingstone, semifreestone and freestone, determined by how easily the peach flesh comes away from the stone, or pit—and that peaches grow in hundreds of varieties, with such colorful names as O’Henry, Alberta, Elegant Lady, Flavor Crust, and Masumoto’s favorite peach, the heirloom variety, Sun Crest. "If you talk with old timers, they will remember Sun Crest and smack their lips," says Masumoto. "That’s how I got this peach into a couple of markets. The old-timers remembered it and asked me to ship them some."
For younger Americans, savoring such peaches may be a real taste adventure. Accustomed to the modern varieties developed for durability and eye appeal, says Andy Mariani, stone-fruit grower with a family enterprise in Morgan Hill, California, younger Americans equate a red-blush skin color with ripeness. "Modern fruits are designed to be picked greener," he says, and are red all over even though unripe. These are firm with a crunchy texture and little juice. In sharp contrast, older peach varieties—such as the Sun Crest peach—remain yellow, bruise easily and have a "melting" texture. "When you bite into one, the juice runs down your chin," he says.
A trip to a greengrocer, a farmers’ market or a farm stand in peach-growing country will turn up succulent, juicy, old-fashioned peaches. Look for peaches that are fragrant, have a golden undercolor and flesh that gives slightly when pressed. Says David Karp, a Californian who specializes in writing about fruit, "The more local the peach and the closer connection to the person who is selling the peach, the better the peach." The best? Grow your own peach tree.