Peach season is almost in full swing. I bought one the other day. It felt ripe, but only on one side, as I later discovered. I am sure the next ones will be worth the wait of a few days for riper ones to arrive at the grocery store.
Food historians have said that peaches most closely resemble human flesh, as they can be “pinched ripe.” Its closest rival is the pear. Peaches are the third-most-important fruit in the United States; the first is the apple, and second the orange.
Peaches grow best in temperate but warm climates. Peaches are fruits of China, where they have been developed for at least 2,000 years.
The first fruits of the peach tree were very small, sour and hairy. The process of developing superior strains has been going on for many centuries. In early times, peaches were a sort of cult fruit. For Chinese poets, painters and sculptors, peaches served as a symbol of immortality.
Eventually, cultivation of peaches spread westward, traveling through areas with suitable climates, such as Kashmir and Persia. Peaches flourished in these areas so well that they became regarded as a native Persian fruit and received the name “persica.”
From Persia, the peach came to Greece, and then to Rome. It was independently introduced to Spain from the Near East. Peaches were grown in English gardens in 1597, but, sadly, the English climate was not ideal for them.
The Spanish introduced peaches to the New World when they established a settlement at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. Eventually, peach orchards spread northward to Georgia, where the warm climate was favorable for peach cultivation.
The peach industry began to flourish in Georgia in the mid-1800s and was further expanded with the advent of refrigerated railroad cars to transport the crop out of state. The Elberta peach, which was developed in Georgia, also helped establish peach cultivation in the state.
The story of the famous Elberta peach began at the Rumph plantation near Marshallville, Georgia, in 1857. A gentleman living in Delaware sent an assortment of peach-tree buddings to his friend Samuel Rumph. The trees flourished and, in a few years, produced fruit.
Mrs. Rumph had a habit of eating peaches while sewing and occasionally would drop a peach seed into her sewing basket. More than 10 years later, her grandson, also named Samuel, decided to start his own orchard. Mrs. Rumph dug out her dry, old seeds, and for fun, Samuel planted them.
An accidental cross-pollination of peach seeds fostered by the wind and bees took place on the Rumph farm. When the first trees bore fruit in 1870, they produced great golden peaches — a species new to the fruit world. Samuel named the peach Elberta for his wife. He was one of the first fruit growers to package fruit attractively and to ship it by sea in refrigerated containers aboard ships to the Northeast. By 1889, there were 3,000 acres of peach orchards in Georgia.
Today, almost every Georgia cook has his or her own version of peach pie. Some make it with a custard filling; others prefer deep-fried peach pies, while still others like a double-crusted peach pie.
The two categories of peaches — clingstone and freestone — are distinguished by the difficulty or ease with which the flesh comes away from the pit. Each category includes both yellow and white flesh, and varieties of both were known in early times. To be at its best, a peach has to ripen on the tree.
I often think that peaches are so good that it seems a shame to cook them, but they are frequently poached in wine or made into pies.
The most famous peach dessert is Peach Melba, created in the 19th century to honor Dame Nellie Melba, a famous opera singer. It is also well known that when Madame Recamier, the famous beauty of the 19th century, was ill, refusing all food and at death’s door, she was tempted to eat a peach. After days of eating peaches in syrup and cream, she eventually recovered.
Peaches survive being canned better than most fruits. The flavor may be slightly altered, but still good. The canning industry, which started to grow towards the end of the 19th century, now accounts for much of the world’s production of peaches.
In some Mediterranean countries, the green fruits (which never ripen fully) of so-called wild peaches are used in cooking and for preserves. They are not true wild peaches (only underripe), as those are only found in China.
I like sliced fresh peaches for dessert. However, for company, I have made a peach pie or a peach crisp. Either may be served warm or at room temperature.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup butter or margarine
4 cups sliced fresh peaches
Granted rind and juice of ½ lemon
2 tablespoons water
Mix flour, sugars, nutmeg, salt and cinnamon. Mix in butter with fork or fingers until coarse crumbs are formed. Put peaches in a 9-inch shallow baking dish. Mix in lemon rind, juice and water. Cover with the crumb mixture and pat it down so that it sticks to the fruit.
Cover with foil and bake in a preheated 350 degree F. oven for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake for 30 minutes longer. Serve warm with cream or ice cream, if desired. Makes 6 servings.