How to pick perfect peaches from Sonoma County farmers' markets

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What does a summer day taste like?

It tastes like a blushing tree-ripened peach, pulled warm from its branch, inviting bites of sumptuous flesh running with sweet juice.

The hard, juiceless, early cling peaches are over. Now, in July, come the masterpieces, or should we say master peaches: Red Havens and O’Henrys, freestone marvels of detectability.

You’ll find local peaches at the Community Markets in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, and for that just-picked flavor, it’s hard to beat the fruit from Dry Creek Peach and Produce. They have a farm stand at their orchard at 2179 Yoakum Bridge Road in Healdsburg, and they sell their California Certified Organic Farmers’ peaches at the Healdsburg farmers’ market. For times and dates, call them at 707-433-8121. You’ll also find excellent peaches at our other farmers’ markets in this region, as well as at Oliver’s locations.

Don’t miss the peak of peach season, for it’s easy enough to have high summer at your fingertips all year around. Here’s how:

You’ll need to set a large pot of water to boil on the stove and have a sink full of ice water. Get a jar of organic honey, a dozen lemons for juicing, a large ladle, a slotted spoon, pint-sized freezer bags, twist ties, and your largest bowl.

Pour a gallon of filtered water in the bowl. Pour in a cup of honey and a cup of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, then stir until the honey is completely dissolved. Place a half dozen peaches in the boiling water for one minute, then take them out with a slotted spoon and place them in the ice water. This blanching treatment loosens their skins, which you should then remove. Take a skinned peach to the big bowl, and holding the peach in the palm of one hand, use the knife in the other hand to make half-inch wide slices, which drop into the syrupy water, where the lemon juice prevents them from oxidizing and turning brown.

Hold a freezer bag open with one hand and ladle in a dessert’s worth of peach slices with some liquid. Set the bag on the table and squeeze the neck of the bag to exclude air, until the peach slices are entirely covered by liquid. Then twist-tie the bag shut securely. I don’t trust the closure on the freezer bags that have a sliding closure. When all the bags of that batch are finished, put them in the freezer sitting on a baking sheet. If they’re lumped on top of each other, they’ll be the devil to pull apart after they’re frozen.

On a cold fall or winter night, take a rock-hard bag of peaches from the freezer and place it in a bowl of very warm tap water while making dinner. By dessert time, all the peaches will be thawed but still cold. They’ll taste fabulously summery in the dead of winter. Do more batches if you have the time and the peaches.

My all-time favorite thing to do with peaches is to make my all-time favorite dessert: peach Melba. Auguste Escoffier himself invented this dessert in 1893 to honor Dame Nellie Melba, the famous Australian opera singer. Her real name was Helen Porter Mitchell, but she took Melba as her stage name (it’s a shortened version of Melbourne, her hometown) and thank goodness she did. Peach Mitchell doesn’t have nearly the romance.

Escoffier poached his peaches in wine and honey, but I think a tree-ripened raw peach is the way to go, as long as it’s juicy and soft enough to eat with a spoon. It should be a freestone rather than a cling peach. You’ll need vanilla ice cream for this dreamy dessert.

Start by making a sauce from red raspberries. Place about 2 cups of berries and a quarter cup of sugar in a saucepan and gently bring up the heat until the raspberries spill their juice and the sugar dissolves. Mash the berries when hot and turn the mixture into a fine sieve. With the edge of a spoon, scrape the mixture back and forth against the mesh to express the syrupy juice into a bowl, leaving the dry pulp and seeds behind. Add a little lemon juice to give it just a slight tang.

Blanch the peaches in boiling water for a minute, then plunge them into ice water. Before you remove the skins, cut along the suture (the slightly raised line that runs the circumference of the peach), all the way around the peach. Twist the halves in opposite directions and remove the pit, and the skins from the halves. Each portion should be served in a small bowl that holds the half-peach cut side up. Place a small scoop of vanilla ice cream in the hollow of the peach half, and drizzle raspberry syrup all over the ice cream and peach.

I asked Professor Tom Gradziel, an expert on peaches at UC Davis, about his favorite peaches. He wrote, “My favorite cling peaches for fresh eating are the old ‘Dixon’ variety, as well as the newer ‘Dr. Davis’ and ‘Riegles’. For freestones, I’m old-fashioned. I feel the old ‘O’Henry’ is tops for fresh or culinary use.”

Look for these varieties

Unfortunately, most peaches are sold loose, without variety names attached to them. The easiest way to discover the variety of peach you’re buying is to shop farmers markets and farm stands. Make sure to ask if the peaches are freestone or cling. Freestone pits are easy to remove while cling peach pits are not, and the flesh must be carved off the pits with a knife.

Elberta: Freestone, with tender, juicy yellow flesh excellent for all uses.

Babcock: White flesh, tender, juicy, and sweet with fine flavor, aroma.

Halehaven: Exceptional quality; one of the best for roadside markets.

J.H. Hale: An old variety with an exceptionally delicious flavor.

O’Henry: Large, freestone peach with delicious yellow flesh streaked red.

Red Haven: Becomes freestone when ripe; fine texture, excellent flavor.

Springcrest: Small fruit with delightful aroma, juicy and melting flesh.

White Lady: Freestone white-fleshed peach with great flavor and aroma.

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This recipe combines the fruit with a spicy sweet syrup and a runny white cheese, and the combination works beautifully.

Fromage Blanc with Poached Peaches

Makes 8 servings

8 ripe peaches

1 cup honey

6 cups water

2 cinnamon sticks

6 whole cloves

— Zest and juice of 1 lemon

4 cups fromage blanc

Wash the peaches, cut them in half and remove the pits.

In a large pan with high sides, gently heat the honey, water, cinnamon, cloves and the lemon juice and zest.

When the mixture is warm, add the peach halves and poach the peaches over low heat for 30 minutes.

Remove the peaches from the syrup with a slotted spoon and strain the syrup into a saucepan and reduce by half. Allow the syrup to cool slightly. To serve, place two peach halves in each of eight bowls, then spoon ½ cup of fromage blanc over the top.

Drizzle with syrup.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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