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AT THE MARKET

Peaches, Abundant and Cheap, Can Often Fall Short on Flavor : Grocery store fruit usually has been picked too early. To ensure sweetness, look for tree-ripened varieties at farmers' markets and roadside stands.

July 28, 1994|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An abundant harvest of California peaches has area markets erecting Goliath-sized mounds of this summertime favorite, while prices are hovering just above the basement.

Peak supplies and favorable prices--about $.89 a pound in grocery stores--are expected to last through August, according to Barbara Buck, executive vice president of the Fresh Produce and Floral Council, an L.A.-based industry trade group.

OK, fine, so the market is replete with the fuzzy fruit and the price is right, but things are not entirely peachy keen.

Anyone who has experienced the pleasure of biting into a tree-ripened, perfuming peach--its juice streaming down the forearm--knows that the key variable, more than quantity and price, is flavor.

Like much of the mass-produced vine- and tree-grown fruits and veggies, flavor has taken a back seat to high production.

Consider the tolls from hurried picking, loading, unloading and long-distance transportation. The need for durability necessitates that the fruit be firm. And that means harvest-time must come at a green, unripe stage.

A preemie peach will "ripen" on the kitchen counter, of course, but it isn't the same experience as eating one that has ripened on the tree.

Enough lamenting.

Ventura County residents in search of the perfect peach do have a few alternatives beyond the store-bought versions. There are the farmers' markets--always a good bet to find fruits at their sweetest.

And there are a few area growers such as Dorothy Holmes, who raises a few different varieties on an acre of land near the Los Padres National Forest. Bonita and Elberta peaches are available at her roadside stand.

Holmes said that over the years she has built a reliable clientele, some of whom make the trek from deep within Los Angeles County to purchase by the boxful her sweet bounty.

"I leave the peaches on the tree as long as I possibly can," Holmes said.

The versatile Bonita, she said, is a large freestone variety, suitable for canning because of its firm flesh, "but it's also good for any use."

The near teardrop-shaped Elberta peaches she raises are becoming more and more valuable. Once an ubiquitous industry staple, the Elberta--a juicy, sugar factory of a peach--has lost its appeal with commercial growers who are now growing more durable and larger varieties.

"You just don't find the Elberta anymore," Holmes said. "But that doesn't say anything about its flavor."

The popular peach varieties saturating today's market are those that feature a deep ruby-hued skin--a factor that consumers have come to expect, according to the California Cling and Freestone Peach Advisory Board. But don't let the redness fool you. It is no indication of ripeness or flavor.

"As far as the best peaches go, I think the white peach is the best," said grower Mike Harvey of the family-operated Harvey Farms above Bakersfield.

Peaches of the white variety--normally with a pale cream-colored flesh--are becoming a familiar site at grocery stores, although they are still considered a specialty item, Harvey said.

Noted for their superior sugar and juice content, white peaches in general are more fragile than their yellow-fleshed cousins.

Harvey Farms raise a white version they call the "Champagne"--a large peach with a creamy pink-blushed flesh.

"Not a lot of growers can handle the Champagne variety. It is so delicate and it bruises easy," Harvey said.

Regular attendees of the Thousand Oaks farmers' market may recognize the Harvey Farms name. The family has spent a lot of time there, offering an impressive array of specialty tree-grown fruit, including Asian pears, plums, apples, nectarines and peaches. Transportation problems prevent them from making the trip down from Delano, but Harvey said they hope to be back very soon.

As for the white peach--supermarket-priced at about $1.50 a pound--we can expect to see a lot more of those in the future, Harvey said.

"I think white peaches will become more predominant. New varieties are coming out that are a little less delicate than the Champagne."

And they have the added advantage that they can be eaten while still firm, Harvey said, and need not soften up like their yellow counterparts. "That's critical. Most people don't know that." When purchasing any kind of peach, avoid those with a greenish undertone or with dark soft spots and bruises.

And remember, dark reddish skin is no indication of flavor. A peach should yield to gentle pressure before devouring. Unripe fruit can be quickly ripened by placing in a closed paper bag.

Details

Following are a few locations where you can purchase peaches grown here in Ventura County:

* Dorothy Holmes' roadside stand.

16350 Maricopa Highway, above Ojai.

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Holmes expects to have peaches for the next couple of weeks. Be sure to call ahead, 646-1231.

* Tierra Rejada Ranch.

3370 Moorpark Road, Moorpark.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Here you'll find the freestone August Pride variety for another week or two. Call 529-3690.

* Old Creek Ranch & Winery.

10024 Old Creek Road, Oak View.

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Mondays.

Here you'll find a few trees to scavenge. Call ahead to check for availability, 649-4132.

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