Peaches are part of the rose family, related to almonds, plums, apricots and cherries. They’re all drupes; in other words, fruit with flesh surrounding a hard shell containing a seed. This isn’t essential information, of course, I just like saying drupe. Peaches originated in China thousands of years ago (wild peaches still grow there), introduced from Persia to Europe, and then beyond, likely around the 16th century. In Taoist mythology, a peach tree becomes the Tree of Life and represents immortality. In China, still to this day, the peach symbolizes youth and long life. Powerful stuff.
Sadly, tracking down a perfectly ripe peach can prove to be as challenging an undertaking as finding eternal youth. At their best, peaches come close to having tropical attributes; luscious, aromatic, dripping and bursting with intense flavour. Consequently, few things are more disappointing than cutting into an inferior peach. The anticipation is just too high.
When shipped from too far afield, peaches are fragile and easily damaged. We don’t grow peaches commercially in Alberta, so every year we depend on our B.C. neighbour’s bounty. Be particular when you’re choosing peaches at the market. Peaches will continue to ripen and become a little bit juicier and fragrant after harvesting, but they won’t become any sweeter. If the fruit is hard and greenish around the stem end, it’s unlikely to ripen. A slight give on the shoulders (stem end) when GENTLY pressed (don’t be that person who jams their thumbs into fruit and then puts it back) will indicate fruit more likely to continue to ripen. A case of peaches will have fruit at various stages of ripeness, so checking every day is essential. Peaches will keep at room temperature for about a week. After that, a brief sojourn in the fridge will keep them from becoming overripe. Make it all about the peaches for a week or so and your illusions won’t be shattered. Choose plump fruit that is heavy in the hand. Eschew any fruit with bruising or shriveled skin.
There are white peaches and yellow – the white fleshed varieties tend to be sweeter, while the latter are often more tart. There are different shapes too, notably the Saturn or donut peach. I see these in markets occasionally, but they are more of a novelty, to my mind. The difference between clingstone and freestone, when describing peaches, is pretty self-evident. The pits of the freestone varieties come away easily and the pits of the clingstones, well, cling to the flesh of the peach. A word or two on nectarines, which are closely related to peaches: The most obvious difference is the smooth skin as opposed to the fuzzy. There are subtle differences in texture and flavour as well, but the two fruits are interchangeable for all intents and purposes. One perk, nectarines don’t have to be peeled.
While a peach pie is nirvana to some, a peach crisp really rings my bell.
Preheat your oven to 190 C (375 F) and butter an 8-inch baking dish. Peel, pit and slice 6 ripe peaches. A ripe peach shouldn’t need to be blanched to peel, but if you’re having difficulty, pour boiling water over the peaches in a colander, then peel. Gently toss the sliced fruit with 2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract (or vanilla, if preferred) and arrange in the bottom of the baking dish. Combine 250 ml (1 cup) flour, 250 ml (1 cup) white sugar, 125 ml (¼ cup) packed light brown sugar, 5 ml (1 tsp) orange zest, 2.5ml (½ tsp) ground cinnamon, and 1.25 ml (¼ tsp) salt together in a bowl. Work 125 ml (½ cup) cold butter into the mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse crumbs. Strew the flour/butter mixture over the fruit. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the topping is golden and the peaches are bubbling through. Serve warm or room temperature with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
Another summer pleasure is grilled peaches. The only caveat I would implement is to make sure your grill is really clean. Preheat and lightly oil the grill. Combine 150 g (6 ounces) soft chevre cheese, 30 ml (2 Tbsp) milk, 15 ml (1 Tbsp) liquid honey, 15 ml (1 Tbsp) chopped pistachios and a pinch of ground coriander. Grill the peaches cut side down until you see nice caramelized grill marks, about 6-8 minutes depending on how hot your grill is. Invert and fill the cavity of each peach with a spoonful of the cheese mixture; garnish with mint and serve warm.
Nothing compares to a fresh peach with little or no embellishment, but should you find yourself with an embarrassment of riches, a Bellini is just the thing. Originating in Venice around the 1930s at the infamous Harry’s Bar, this lovely drink should push the mimosa aside as the quintessential brunch tipple for at least the peach season. It’s as easy as making a puree of perfectly ripe peaches with a little simple syrup and a squeeze of lemon juice. Put 45 ml (3 Tbsp) purée in the bottom of a flute and fill with a dry Prosecco, about 125 ml (½ cup). Salud!