Finding the peaches your grandparents sought out every summer takes more than a trip to the supermarket. You have to do what they did: Go to the source.
The story of how agricultural scientists have bred fruits for disease resistance and shipability instead of flavor is one any Berkeley eight-year-old can recite. To counteract these declines in taste, Slow Food USA, a group dedicated to preserving traditional foods and sustainable farming, is building an "Ark of Taste," a list of endangered crops, livestock, and artisanal foodstuffs worthy of preservation.
The first fruit it added was the Sun Crest peach. Made famous by poet and farmer David "Mas" Masumoto, who wrote Epitaph for a Peach about them, Sun Crests can barely contain their own juice. Messy fruits that leave you coated in fuzz and sticky nectar, they bruise so easily you have to pick 'em ripe and eat 'em fast. Big, perfectly round, and bearing a freestone, they have long been a favorite of canners.
The Ark is still far from comprehensive. It contains neither cherries nor nectarines, for example, but more than twenty pear varieties. The six peaches it lists are as lovely and fragile as the Sun Crest -- a few growers sell them at farmers' markets, priced at $4 or more a pound. For a third of the price, though, you can pick three of them -- Sun Crests, Fay Elbertas, and Rio Osos -- in Brentwood, along with other spectacular stone fruits.
The season starts any day now. In fact, Moffat Ranch, the only orchard that offers all three peaches, doesn't open until they're ready in early July. To scope out other places these rare fruits would soon appear, I drove east the last weekend of June, trading coastal chill for the dry Delta heat. The Wolfe family, which operates two orchards not far off the main stretch of Walnut Boulevard, are primarily apricot growers, but people travel to their fruit stand later in the summer for Sun Crests and Elbertas. Soon they will be sending e-mail alerts to their younger customers and postcards to older ones to alert them as the peaches hit the stands. "Older people can and freeze the fruit," Jane Wolfe says. "Younger people bring their kids to show them where peaches come from."
Meredith Nunn, owner of The Farmer's Daughter Produce, planted Sun Crests and her other favorite peach, nectarine, and apricot varieties twenty years ago when she bought her farm. She posts a schedule of the dates each will appear on a whiteboard at her stand. The peaches it lists, such as O'Henrys and Elegant Ladies, are all older ones. "The new varieties are just not as good," she says. Nunn doesn't sell at farmers' markets. Managing her stand's brisk business is enough. Everything on display is picked from her gardens that morning, and Nunn claims it's all pesticide-free, with organic certification pending.
Her favorite early-season yellow peach is the Red Top. Even two days away from full juiciness, the fruit was so intensely flavored it stopped my breath. But Brentwood will soon widen Marsh Creek Road temporarily as it builds a Highway 4 bypass, and gone will be Nunn's two rows of Red Top peaches, as well as her popular drive-through coffee stand, which has secured her income for the past ten years. "I don't know how I'm going to make it next year," she says, tearing up a little.
While some farmers worry about the bypass, others hope it will bring more business. They've been adapting to major changes such as this for decades. Their livelihoods threatened by the low prices fruit packers paid for their crops, Brentwood's small farmers first banded together in 1976 to launch Harvest Time, a loose organization of farms, stands, and U-Pick orchards. Harvest Time publishes a map of its 38 members and maintains a Web site (Harvest4You.com) with contact details and varieties grown. The effort has paid off: Brentwood farms have become a family-friendly destination, drawing folks from all over the Bay Area and beyond.
"The old canners would come at eight in the morning," says Len Canciamilla, who has owned Canciamilla Ranch since 1985. "They'd be out here before you opened. Now it's tourists." The new breed shows up earlier in the season, too. Canciamilla had Sun Crests and Fay Elbertas, but when the numbers of canners dwindled he ripped them out in favor of nectarine trees, whose fruits ripen soon after the cherries of late May and June, when the traffic up and down Walnut Boulevard reaches its peak.
Canciamilla's nectarines -- some old ones such as Independence and Fantasia, some newer, like June Glo -- aren't in the Ark of Taste. But they may offer proof that, with stone fruit, environment is as critical as genetics. Left on the tree until picked, the fruits have glutted themselves on sunshine, transmuting it into juice so concentrated it's intoxicating. Flavor like that comes just once a year, and it's worth the drive.
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