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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Chasing the perfect peach

All too often it's gorgeous to behold, but mealy and tasteless within. Here's how to find the ideal.

August 06, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Summer holds few pleasures more promising than tasting that one perfect peach. Nor are there many disappointments so frustrating as the many that fail to measure up. The problem is being able to tell the difference between the two before you buy them.

After what seemed like a summer of utterly forgettable peaches, I decided to try to figure out what it was that makes that perfect piece of fruit so glorious, and so elusive. I bought dozens of samples from everyone ranging from my neighborhood chain grocery to farmers market heroes to the grower who supplies Alice Waters. I talked to scientists and I talked to cooks. I even broke out my trusty refractometer.

What I found should significantly increase your odds of finding a great peach. But unfortunately, it is still far from a sure bet. The problem is, a peach is a darned complicated thing. It doesn't seem that way on the surface. A summer peach is the very image of innocence, the cherub of the fruit world. It's a fruit so natural it blushes (that's the technical term for the red stain that appears on the peel).

But beneath that unaffected veneer, there's a world of complexity. Take the aroma, something at once floral and spicy and even nearly meaty. Think of cinnamon and roses, and a hint of lavender.

Move on to the texture. This is the subject of some debate. There are those who belong to the "dripping sack of juice" school and others who prefer their peaches nearly crisp. I like my peaches yielding as opposed to melting. Think ice cream that has just begun to soften.

Then there's the flavor. Take a deep breath here. Start with the fragrance. Add a racy bit of acidity and balance it with a lovely, round sweetness. Not sharp like sugar, but smooth and whole like caramel.

These are just the basics. The real hallmark of a great peach is a certain quality that's usually expressed as "wow" or "oh my God." You taste one and it is somehow bigger than other peaches, grander, and you keep on tasting it long after the last trace is swallowed.

Ripeness is half the story

Does that sound like what you've been getting? I thought not. A great peach is a towering home run; what we all too often get is a long fly ball. But how do you tell the difference?

"Oh ho!" I hear you say, "I know how to pick a peach." You look for a golden color, or at least an absence of green. You press it gently, feeling for a subtle give. You sniff deeply, looking for that spicy fragrance.

You're right, but only halfway. That's how you find a ripe peach. But a ripe peach and a great peach are not necessarily the same thing. A great peach also needs to be well matured.

Ripeness and maturity are separate but overlapping qualities. Maturity means that the peach has hung on the tree long enough to develop everything that will eventually lead to great flavor. A mature peach isn't necessarily ready to eat -- it may have little flavor, or be unpleasantly crisp. But all of the factors will be in place.

Ripeness, on the other hand, is what makes a peach delicious, as opposed to merely sweet. When a peach ripens, the color changes from green to gold, the texture softens and the flavors and aromas become complex.

Peaches only mature on the tree. Ripening can happen on the tree or after picking. A great peach is both ripe and mature. But a ripe peach that is not perfectly matured will never be great, while a perfectly matured peach that is not yet ripe still has a chance if you treat it right.

What is perfectly matured? That's the source of some discussion. Peach flavor is a balance of sweet and tart, with the trace elements that give complexity. This is particularly true of yellow peaches. White peaches, especially most modern varieties, are bred to be low in acidity, which makes them seem sweeter (though to my mind, somewhat simple).

Still, it does seem that great flavor and high sugar are closely linked. Studies at UC Davis found that consumer acceptance of peaches increased markedly when the sugar concentration got above 11%. Jon Rowley, a stone-fruit missionary and pioneer in getting high quality peaches into supermarkets, prefers a standard of 13%. That was the minimum he set in 1997 for farmers who wanted to sell fruit to the Seattle grocery chain he was working with. The program was an immediate sensation. The first year, the three stores sold 64 tons of stone fruit in only six weeks.

As far as sweetness is concerned, Rowley says: "High sugar doesn't necessarily mean great flavor. But you can't have great flavor without it. Peach flavor is a balance of acid and sugars, and each variety of peach and even each individual peach is different. Each has its own universe within it. It's fascinating how one peach can be different from another."

Rowley now works for Al Courchesne at Frog Hollow Farm, which supplies fruit to Chez Panisse as well as to Bay Area farmers markets and offers its wares by mail order.

Putting them to the test

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