In Season: So much to enjoy from peaches

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 30, 2012 - 1:47 pm

This is the kind of peach season that makes David Mas Masumoto's mouth water.

"My dad used to say, once in a decade you'd get a year like this – you don't want to miss it," said Masumoto, America's most famous peach farmer. "It's a good year for flavor; hot but not too hot. It's perfect for peaches."

The author and longtime organic grower added that he's one of the lucky ones – he has plenty of peaches.

Not all California growers can say the same.

"If you're a grower and if you have peaches, it's going to be a good year," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "The big word in that sentence is 'if.' "

April hailstorms pummeled several orchards in the Central Valley, where peaches are grown from south of Fresno to north of Marysville. Growers in Kings County lost a third of their peach crop. In the heart of the peach belt, Tulare County growers suffered an estimated 20 percent loss.

"(For a hailstorm to hit) at that time of year, it could be 20, 30 percent loss; it could be 100 percent," Masumoto said. "I saw the storm clouds come in, about 20 miles south of our farm (near Fresno). They were black, black clouds. I knew major damage was happening. It's just devastating.

"But if you survived that, it's turning into a very, very good year."

According to Bedwell, supply may be a little tight nationwide, but prices for California consumers should stay the same as last year.

Added Masumoto, "After years of overproduction, we've found more balance between supply and demand."

California's peach season stretches from May through September, peaking now. Varieties are not all the same; each has its own two- or three-week harvest window.

"July is the ideal time," Bedwell said. "We're really getting wonderful-tasting fruit."

Said Masumoto, "Different varieties have different characteristics. This year, all varieties seem extremely juicy. Another year, they may be more meaty. But this really is a year of juice."

While Georgia proclaims its peachy preference on many of its license plates, California is America's true fruit basket.

"We're the No. 1 peach-producing state," Bedwell said. "California grows almost two-thirds of the nation's peaches. But you can say that about a lot of stone fruit. We grow 95 percent of plums and nectarines."

California's Central Valley has the perfect peach climate, Masumoto said. Peaches need a chill in winter and heat in summer.

"Peaches are native to the high desert of China," he said. "That's their natural climate. They like heat. They love a hot, dry summer. That's what they get in the Valley and why they grow so well here, especially organically.

"In the South, typically there's a lot of humidity," Masumoto added. "Peaches don't like it that much."

Production of cling peaches, preferred for processing, centers in Stanislaus and Merced counties. Meanwhile, Fresno and Tulare counties concentrate on freestones for the fresh market.

Once known as the "Peach Bowl of the World," Sutter County still produces a large share of peaches, too. Pick-your-own farms dot the area.

"For consumers, go out and enjoy them while you can," Bedwell said.

Right now, Sun Crest and Elberta varieties – two of Masumoto's favorites – are coming to market.

"The Sun Crest is a wonderful peach with the right balance of sugar and acid," he said. "It's extremely meaty. The juice just pours out of them.

"My wife loves Elbertas," he added. "They bake so well."

Masumoto, author of five books including the award-winning "Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm" (HarperOne, $13.99, 256 pages) just finished work on his first Masumoto Farms cookbook, due out next June from Ten Speed Press.

Mixing philosophy with farming, Masumoto's lyrical writing and organic heirloom peaches have made him a national star. He takes his passion for peaches very personally and advises other peach lovers to do the same.

"Get to know the different types of peaches and the farmers who grow them," he said. "When you're shopping for ripe peaches, you can't go just by the red color. There's a trick to knowing when they're ready. You look for that glow.

"A ripe peach really does glow," he added. "It takes awhile to learn the art of selecting the right ones. That's why you want to make friends with the farmers. They'll help you."

Peaches never get boring, he said.

"They're never quite the same from year to year," Masumoto said. "It's like working with art."

Spring and summer weather adds to their complexity.

"Peaches are like humans – they have an attitude," he explained. "If they wake up late (with a cool spring), they'll be off rhythm the whole year. If they wake early, they're grumpy. If it's too hot, they're whiny."

But right now, they're just right.

"Part of the joy of cooking and working with peaches, they have this wonderful character," Masumoto said. "It changes every year. So should we."


Nutrition: One cup of fresh sliced peaches contains about 60 calories, almost all from carbohydrates. (One cup equals about one large peach.) Peaches are a good source of vitamins A, C and niacin. They also contain several antioxidants and such minerals as potassium, iron and copper.

Health benefits: High in fiber and low in calories, peaches have no sodium or cholesterol. That makes them a naturally healthy food, fresh, frozen or canned. Recent studies also show that compounds found in peaches may help fight off obesity-related diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Other studies linked peaches to fighting cancer cells, improving vision, reducing hypertension and easing side effects of irritable bowel syndrome.

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