My daughter Delilah has a thing for peaches. About this time last year I introduced her to fresh tree-ripened peaches and she fell in love. Since then any yellow fruit she likes is “peaches” to her. Mango: “more peaches, please.” Cantaloupe: “more peaches, please.” Now that we have circled back around to peach season I’m happy I don’t have to correct her anymore (at least for a while).The 2011 peach and nectarine season has been challenging for one reason or another in many parts of the US. Peach production is like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears —
conditions that are too hot or too cold during the growing or harvest season can seriously impact the availability and eating quality of the fruit. This year, cool conditions on the west coast have caused the fruit to mature slowly. In the south and southeast, extreme heat has shortened the season for some varieties. Now, in mid-July as production moves further north and mid- to late-season varieties start coming off of the trees, the supply and quality of the fruit is expected to be “just right.”
Rain is another cause for concern this season – particularly for organic growers. Excessive exterior moisture exposure, particularly close to harvest time, increases the risk of fungal infection in the fruit. The most common, Monilinia Fructicola, causes a condition in stone fruit called Brown Rot, which starts as small brown circles on the surface of the fruit but once established, will spread quickly and cause fruit to decay at an accelerated rate. It is almost impossible to control in organic production. Luckily, so far the incidence of Brown Rot have been minor this year.
In addition to increased availability this time of year, the varieties harvested have some different characteristics. Early varieties of peaches and nectarines are commonly cling — where the flesh “clings” to the interior seed stone. By mid-July most varieties are free stone – where the flesh of the fruit separates easily from the seed stone. Freestone peaches and nectarines are wonderfully sweet and juicy but are better eaten firmer than the earlier cling varieties – overly soft freestone fruit can have a mushy texture. Freestone varieties are also far more likely to develop a condition known as “split pit” where the seed stone cracks as the fruit matures (sometimes leaving fragments on the fruit). You should always carefully inspect your fruit for fragments if you encounter a split pit.
When selecting peaches and nectarines, the end where the fruit was attached to the branch will tell you a lot about the maturity of the fruit. An overly green tinge around the stem end is an indication of fruit that was harvested too green. Most supermarket fruit is harvested ripe but firm to prevent bruising. In most cases a few days at room temperature and your fruit is ready to eat. Ripe fruit can be stored in your refrigerator until you are ready to eat it but be careful — cold temperatures will damage peaches and nectarines stored too long.Peaches and nectarines are a great addition to just about any dish and aside from obvious dessert applications, they are also great in salads, in salsas for fish or just eaten straight away. And although I tend to be a little more exacting about my fruit identification, my midsummer sentiments are the same as Delilah’s: more peaches (and nectarines), please.