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Nectarines of the Gods

July 25, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

Old nectarines never die, they just go to UC-Davis' experimental agriculture station in Kearney, where they peacefully coexist with even the newest varieties in a kind of living library of fruit.

Of course, not every variety is present in the six orchard rows of peaches, plums and nectarines. If the selection were limited to varieties grown commercially today, there'd have to be more than 80 varieties of nectarines alone.

But there is enough fruit from different periods to get a pretty good perspective on the argument of new varieties versus old. A tasting stroll through the orchard one mid-July morning shows that the answer is a definite "maybe." Not all of the old varieties taste good while a lot of modern varieties "eat" very well indeed.

Guided by Kevin Day, who worked at the orchard for seven years, we go from tree to tree tasting fruit. The son of school teachers who farmed nectarines part time, Day is now a Tulare County agricultural extension agent who farms nectarines part time.

Not every variety is ripe, of course. Most peaches and nectarines are only in season for at most two weeks, and one of the key elements in developing new fruit is filling holes in growers' schedules.

But there is enough ripe fruit to get a fair idea of how things stack up. We start out with a newer peach, Zee Lady, that is a little under-ripe, but fine and spicy. This is one to look for. Then there's a Suncrest, sweet but a little bland (a second tree provides fruit that is a little spicier). Kim's Elberta--a Faye Elberta spinoff--has high acidity and a pleasant spiciness as well as the Elberta clan's trademark tannic, slightly bitter skin. Then there's Melba, an old variety that is probably just as well forgotten.

On we go, through White Lady--one of the first of the new generation of white peaches, which is fairly simple and sweet--to Babcock--one of the stars of the old white-fleshed peaches. It has more flavor than the White Lady, but is still less than wonderful.

That's just the start. On to Faye Elberta, Hale Haven (an old variety with marvelous, completely melting flesh), Mid Pride, Elegant Lady, Fortyniner and Royal Lady (a new variety with a nice spiciness).

By now, my chin is dripping, my notebook is stained and we're ready to start on nectarines. Fire Red, Panamint, Fantasia, Summer Grand, the granddad Le Grand (melting and sweet), Flavortop, Sun Grand and then Ruby Grand.

Here we stop. My notes simply read, "Wow. Sweet. Spicy. Acid. Mouth-filling. This one has it all."

Then it's plum time. Eldorado, Wickson, a great Queen Anne, a wildly herbaceous Elephant Heart, Burgundy, Catalina, a very plummy Burbank, July Santa Rosa and Dolly.

Finally, full of fruit, we dig up a cardboard box and pick the rest of the Ruby Grand nectarines that are on the tree to take home.

You see, you'll have trouble finding them outside of the experimental station. Fleetingly popular in the '80s, the Ruby Grand had the misfortune of ripening at the same time as other varieties that were bigger and firmer. Besides, it was just too red for its time.

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