By Maria Reidelbach
Peaches are the fruit that most closely resemble human flesh—that’s what pomologists say. It’s the gentle softness of a ripe peach and the minute fuzziness of the skin that has driven poets, from time immemorial and the world over, to erotic flights of fantasy. Bite into a fabulous ripe peach and you’ll get a slobbering mouthful of fragrant, sweet, tart juice barely contained by what those studious peach scientists call “melting flesh.” Yet the center of the peach is a single seed with a shell that is so damn hard it’s called a “stone.” Crack that stone open, and you’ll be rewarded with a maddeningly aromatic bitter almond. Layers of contrasts!
Peaches are just one of a group called “stone fruits” or “drupes.” The defining feature of these delectables is a single seed surrounded by a sturdy shell or endocarp. Local stone fruits include not only peaches, apricots, plums, cherries and nectarines, but also, surprisingly, raspberries, blackberries and other caneberries. These comprise groups of drupelets, each considered by botanists to be a separate fruit with its own tiny stone.
Right now, I’m obsessed with the larger stone fruit. I get the impression from the farmers that stone fruit trees are the race horses of the fruit world—they take a lot of pampering, vetting and extra care, but boy do they produce! If you’re going to grow your own stone fruit, be prepared to learn about pruning, fertilizing, companion planting, and pest management—from fungus to bugs to birds to bears. Steve Clark, the farmer at Prospect Hill Orchards in Milton, which just celebrated its 200-year anniversary, told me that climate change is causing damaging weather fluctuations. There are some varieties of trees that are a bit more forgiving than others; you can learn about these from a dependable local nursery—but you need to be explicit, otherwise you’ll walk away with a tree that promises great fruit but ends up being a disappointing pain in the patootie (I’ve learned from personal experience). Steve recommends Montmorency, Jubalee, Danube, Ulster or Hedelfingen cherries, Red Haven peaches, and Methley and Toka plums as being less difficult to grow.
Luckily we’ve got a bunch of great local farms that patiently grow stone fruit for us, so you can spend a delightful time picking, eating and researching your favorite varieties.
The first to ripen are the cherries, and by the time you read this, you’ll be lucky to find any fresh cherries left—but some farmers sell wonderful preserved cherries in jars. Sweet cherries are best eaten fresh, so browse those jars for sour cherries, either red or black. Lori Wilner, a Hudson Valley-based Broadway actress who bakes a fierce pie, swears by black sour cherries, which is what her Polish-Russian grandma loved. She picks hers at Fix Bros. Fruit Farm in Hudson. Her only complaint is “pitting about 600 cherries per pie,” for which task she recommends pairing a mechanical pitter with a plunger that shoots out the stone and a small child who will delightedly sit and finish the job. I use an un-bent paper clip to hook the stone from the stem end and pull it out.
Some traditional dishes, however, make a virtue of cherry pits. Cherry claflouti, a heavenly French peasant dish, floats whole, un-pitted cherries in egg custard, and eastern European cherry soup recipes often call for making soup stock with cracked cherry pits. Both derive extra flavor from that aromatic almond inside the stone.
Peach, apricot, plum and nectarine stones all have bitter almonds at their core, and, in fact, “sweet” almonds (the kind we know and love) come from a closely related tree. The bitter almond kernels found in stone fruit is like an extract of a sweet almond because it’s got more of the fragrant volatile oils. However, as described, it’s very bitter and also contains minute amounts of toxic compounds (prussic acid and cyanide). Both of these drawbacks are solved by heat, which destroys the bitterness and the chemicals, leaving only a marzipan-like intense almond aroma.
It was from an old peach pie recipe that I learned to crack the pit and add the minced bitter almonds to the pie filling—it’s a fantastic secret ingredient that really amps up the flavor. The French use the kernels, which they call noyaux, in many stone fruit dishes. Alice Waters, in her book Chez Panisse Fruit, suggests roasting peach stones for 10 to 15 minutes to make them easier to crack, but sometimes you’ll find fruit with stones inside that are already split.
Waters’s cookbook also includes some recipes using fresh peach tree leaves, which I am eager to try. To make Vin de Pêche, peach leaves are soaked in a mixture of red wine, cognac and sugar, and for Peach Leaf Parfait, the leaves are infused in hot milk, which is then used to make sherbet.
August in the Hudson Valley is prime time not only for peaches, but also apricots, plums and nectarines. When choosing fruit, get the best by picking your own; if you can’t grow it, go to one of the many U-Pick farms. Pick ripe fruit—it will be slightly soft and fragrant. If you’re buying fruit from a farmer be aware that firm peaches will soften slightly, but not actually ripen once they’re picked, and they can suffer from refrigeration, which can make them mealy; it’s best to taste a sample before picking and purchasing. Ditto for nectarines, which are peaches without the fuzz, not a peach-plum cross as many believe. Plums will ripen after picking so you’ve got a bit more wiggle room.
Adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit
I love that this delicious no-cook classic dessert contains three related plant foods.
- 5 ripe peaches
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup raspberries
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 quart of vanilla ice cream
- Almond cookies
Chill six pretty serving bowls.
Slice the peaches, sprinkle with 1/4 cup sugar and let stand for at least 10 minutes.
Mash the raspberries with remaining sugar then, if desired, push through a sieve to remove the tiny stones.
Scoop the ice cream into the bowls, drizzle with raspberry mixture and top with peach slices. Serve with almond cookies.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Reach her at email@example.com.