The recent stir over the release of the latest Star Wars movie is perfectly timed to coincide with another highly anticipated event – the arrival at urban farmers’ markets of summer’s first peaches, nectarines and apricots. The appearance of the first stone fruit at farmers’ markets is an annual event that is greeted with just as much breathless anticipation as a summer blockbuster. Certain of its pedigree, customers accustomed to the fresh offerings of stone fruit from California farmers wait to bite into the tastiest, juiciest peaches they can find, anticipating the flavor and aroma that will transport them to the top tier of palate paradise. The taste of a fresh peach conjures up images of long hot summer days and warm nights, of trees bursting forth with a bounty of sun-drenched fruit, and memories of summers past when stone fruit was ripe and sweet. Or at least this is what a fresh California peach or nectarine can do when it is properly ripened. Ripeness, it turns out, has many flavors, and the initial offerings of stone fruit this year have varied dramatically in their ability to please. Farmers’ market customers have learned over the years to understand the difference between a soft piece of fruit and a ripe one. Farmers, who take pride in growing fruit fit for the palate, not the packing container, select pick their orchards over and over again to bring only fully tree-ripened fruit to their waiting customers. Commercial packers, on the other hand, wait for the first hint of maturity in their orchards, then pick and pack everything on the trees, cutting short the fruit’s natural ability to develop its full potential flavor. This is the fruit that is sold at supermarkets – under-ripe, one-dimensional in taste and lacking the generous flavor and feel of a tree-ripened fruit. And this is why farmers’ market fruit is so special and sought-after. It is hand-picked with the customer in mind, just as you would do for yourself if you had a peach tree in your own back yard. This year’s stone fruit season has gotten off to a difficult start for farmers. It wasn’t the record-setting winter rains that did them in – rather it was the two inches of rain and hail that hit the ripening fruit at just the wrong time in the first week of May. The late rain decimated fully ripe cherry crops and the cool wet weather in its wake hindered the stone fruit’s ripening process. Peaches and nectarines had achieved full size and good color, and were looking and feeling ripe, but the sun had not shined to finish the ripening process by adding a kiss of sweetness. As always when late rain threatens, farmers face the agonizing decision of whether to pick and save what they can, or to let the rain pass and hope the fruit on the trees will continue to ripen without developing mold or mildew problems. Rain can cause cracks and “tip rot,” a localized softening of the fruit’s blossom end that rapidly leads to decay. Conventional farmers can apply a fungicide that keeps fruit from breaking down, but organic farmers’ options are much more limited. It is a terrible thing for a farmer to watch an orchard of beautiful, mature fruit drop to the ground after the rains have gone. So some early stone fruit made its way into farmers’ markets around California in the second week of May. The fruit looked good, and some of it was a little green, but it was nice to see summer fruit after a long winter. Some of the fruit was ready to sample, and some was ready to take home to set on a counter for a few days. Most people couldn’t resist biting in to a piece of fruit if they found one with a little give. And what was the reaction? I will share mine. It was anticipation – the smell of summer fruit was tantalizing when held right under the nose. But the first bite was a bit of a struggle. The flesh did not give the way a nice ripe peach should. As the smell lingered in my nose, the taste was reminiscent of fruit in days past. However, as I began to chew, I was disappointed that the flavor did not develop or deepen. It was a one-note dance with sharp fruit taste and no sugar. It flatlined in my mouth before it got up into my nose and swirled around in my head. I regretted that I had bought over a pound, which at only three or four pieces of fruit didn’t seem like much but I did not hold out much hope for the rest of the fruit tasting any better. Maybe this would make a good cobbler or ice cream topping. It just didn’t taste like summer yet. Now as we are getting into late May, the days in the San Joaquin Valley have hit the upper 90s and stone fruit should be developing some serious sweetness and oompf. I remember the day early this May when I received a call from grower Art Lange of Honey Crisp from Reedley, who likes to talk about his fruit without actually committing to a return date. He said he just took thirty boxes of his usually reliable peaches up to his San Francisco market because they looked and felt ripe. When he started sampling them, however, he was shocked to discover that they had no sweetness — meaning no taste — meaning he had no choice but to pull all thirty boxes off the table and close up shop. Expectant customers were turned away – but an expectant customer is better than a disappointed customer, and Art will never disappoint a customer with less than perfect fruit. The peaches will be all right for drying, said Art, and then added with a rueful chuckle “I guess that’s why I don’t make any money farming.”
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