(Published by the Bay Area News Group on August 1.2013. See “when is fruit ready to eat” sidebar to learn how to assess ripe peaches and nectarines.)
A great peach tastes like a perfect summer. Satiny flesh flaunts bursts of sweetness balanced by tartness with enveloping, lush aromas. Thick juice explodes with the first bite and then runs down chins, hands and arms. Moans of pleasure are involuntary.
But finding such fruit today can be difficult.
“There are generations of consumers who have never tasted a really ripe peach,” says Marcy Masumoto, of the Masumoto Family Farm near Fresno, peach growers extraordinaire.
A similar lament about today’s mass-market stonefruit is shared by fellow esteemed growers Andy Mariani of Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill and “Farmer Al” Courchesne of Brentwood’s Frog Hollow Farm.
The output of their picked-ripe fruit represents a rounding error compared to the massive industrial orchards in California’s Central Valley. “The peach varieties are being developed with more red blush to hide the fact they’re being picked green,” Mariani explains.
“An ideal fruit for them is something you can treat like gravel, just throwing it into the bins. It has no sugar, no flavor. They dump them, de-fuzz them, put fungicides on them and they go to a central distribution area where they can sit for weeks.”
The commonplace picked-green, cold-stored fruit becomes mealy and disappointing. Meanwhile, perfectionist growers search out heirloom varieties of peaches like Gold Dust, Sun Crest and Silver Logan, as well as varieties of nectarines — genetically, peaches without fuzz — apricots, plums and cherries based on maximum flavor. Fruit from the Masumotos, Mariani and Courchesne is on menus in Bay Area restaurants like Chez Panisse, Quince, Waterbar, Boulevard, Rubicon, Manresa and The French Laundry; in Los Angeles at Providence and Craft; and in select eateries elsewhere from New York City to New Orleans.
Some delicious old varieties are particularly fragile, like a signature peach from the Masumotos, the heirloom Elberta variety. These peaches are only sold to patrons who “adopt” and harvest a tree for a season because the delectable fruit is too bruise prone for shipping.
The finest peach variety at Andy’s Orchard is the succulent Baby Crawford, rejected by UC Davis labs because of its small size and lack of redness, then resurrected and named by Mariani, a horticulturist as well as grower with one of the largest stonefruit collections on the West Coast.
At Frog Hollow, Courchesne’s signature peach is the sweet-tart Cal Red, a luscious variety burnished with burgundy “that never really caught on anywhere else,” he says. He notes that his plums and pluots “are also becoming recognized in the marketplace” among consumers seeking that hedonistic, addictive, juice-dripping stonefruit experience.
While these growers are finding success today, this wasn’t always so. Twenty years ago, patriarch David “Mas” Masumoto considered ripping out some peach trees because they were losing money. Fortunately, he changed his mind but according to his wife Marcy, “One of our first outlets for organic peaches was baby food because there was no retail market at the time.”
Courchesne says it was “a daily struggle” 37 years ago after he switched from teaching to farming and “bought 13 acres behind the cemetery” in Brentwood. Down in Morgan Hill, Andy Mariani and his brother were also wrestling with formidable economics at the family orchard. “In those days, the strategy was, produce the fruit, put it on the truck and whatever you get, you get,” he recalls.
Eventually, some consumers rediscovered juicy, ripe fruit. “There’s been a revolution in food that has pushed against the industrial food complex — in our case, peaches with real flavor,” states Mas Masumoto. To celebrate their favorite fruit, the Masumotos just released their first cookbook, “The Perfect Peach.”
Empowered by farmers markets, foodies and striving chefs, these growers now sell all they can produce. Courchesne’s operation currently comprises 145 acres and his ripest fruit — which might otherwise be hard to sell — goes into a line of popular Frog Hollow brand preserves and baked goods orchestrated by his chef wife, Becky.
While Morgan Hill seems to grow more housing developments than fruit these days, Mariani has been leasing nearby parcels along with his 30-acre “home place” to continue his avid quest to breed and grow rare, delicious stonefruit. His brother next door — now a separate operation — still goes in a more mainstream direction.
Says Mariani: “I have a passion for what I do. There’s a fine line between (farming) and madness. Some of us have crossed the line sometimes.”
Where to Find It
Andy’s Orchard (www.andysorchard.com) individually packs and ships its fruit to order, including “fruit subscriptions” (it’s like a CSA). Fruit is also available at Sigona’s and C.J. Olsen’s on the Peninsula and at the “country store” at the orchard in Morgan Hill. Tasting and tour events are held in June, July and early August.
Frog Hollow (www.froghollow.com) also packs and ships fruit to order, has a thriving CSA program in the Bay Area, has fruit available at some markets such as Whole Foods, participates in several Bay Area farmers markets, will return to the Santa Monica farmers market in the fall and has a shop at San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
Masumoto Family Farm (www.masumoto.com) has a popular adopt-a-tree program for its Elberta peach crop and has “meet and eat” events near Fresno for customers ordering boxes of fruit. Their peaches and nectarines are also available at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, at Berkeley Bowl and are distributed to organic markets around the country. Nikiko Masumoto (@nmasumoto) tweets market locations as she discovers them.
The new Masumoto cookbook, “The Perfect Peach” (Ten-Speed Press) is available on their website, on Amazon and at some large retail bookstores.
Great growers like Andy’s Orchard and Frog Hollow can accommodate eager consumers all across the country. They put their picked-ripe fruit, individually wrapped, into sturdy custom boxes and speed these shipments quickly via UPS.
When is fruit ready to eat?
While persnickety growers say the usual picked-green, cold-stored peaches and nectarines will forever stay under-sweet and mealy, picked-ripe fruit is nuanced and some selection tips help maximize enjoyment. While such fruit isn’t picked until it reaches physiological maturity, it will still go through various stages of ripeness thereafter.
For peaches and nectarines, aroma and degree of softness are more telling than color, although a peach that’s hard and green near the stem is probably not ripe. The following ripeness guide for peaches and nectarines is based on the “peach primer” in the Masumoto book and steers consumers toward maximum fruit pleasure. For checking softness, be gentle and use finger pads rather than tips, which are more likely to leave a bruise.
Hard – Feels like a baseball and shouldn’t have been picked.
Firm – Feels like a tennis ball and may be ready in a few days.
Give – The most versatile fruit, it will absorb subtle pressure but not bruise. It’s on the edge of its most powerful flavor and can ripen a bit more or be used for baking.
Soft – Ready to be eaten fresh. Will bruise easily, so handle with care. Soft fruit can also be used for cooking and baking.
Gushy or gusher – Heavy with juice, enjoyable overripe, possibly a bit bruised and perfect for jams or purees. Sadly, consumers don’t often see such fruit.
Bruise – Flattened and indented area with slightly discolored flesh. Consumers shouldn’t be afraid of bruises because they can easily be cut out and can help indicate a ripe piece of fruit.
Mealy – A frustrating state indicating breakdown of cell structure caused by previous cold storage. While the texture can be soft, such fruit will never ripen correctly and be enjoyable.
Storing – Ripen fruit by resting it on the shoulder while not touching other fruit. Refrigerating ripe fruit will stop the maturing process if it can’t be eaten immediately.
Eating – To get the best flavor hit, bite first into the sun-kissed end opposite the stem.