Like so many fruits, the first peaches were discovered in China during the 10th century BC, and, thanks to early explorers and trade routes, found their way to Persia (now Iran) and ancient Egypt. After showing up in Greece and Italy, they made their way to the city of Marseille, a large port town in southern France, scoring a home run from the get-go. Eventually, like most French foods, they found their way across the channel to England, where Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) proclaimed that no meal was complete without a fresh peach.
During the 16th and 17th century, France was the self-proclaimed world center for peaches. As was frequently the fashion, when a king took a liking to a particular food, he spread the word. Thus was the case with King Louis XIV (mid-1600s) who ordered hundreds of peach trees be planted in the royal orchards and commanded his chefs to start creating new recipes, glorifying this newfound treasure. No doubt tarts and pastries were whipped up daily to satisfy his craving. To this day, several varieties of peaches, including heirloom, are still grown in the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles.
In 1892, a new dessert was created at the Savoy hotel in London by famous French chef Auguste Escoffier. Named in honor of an opera star, Peach Melba made its debut, featuring the glorious peach with raspberry sauce and cream. (Sadly, too late for King Louis to enjoy.)
A unique Italian cocktail originated in world famous Harry’s Bar in Venice, by its owner Giuseppe Cipriani. The Bellini is still popular to this day, as Mr. Cipriani wisely chose not to name it the Harry. Made with fresh peach juice and prosecco, a sparkling wine, its namesake was a prominent Italian painter, not a bartender.
Peaches probably were passengers on the early ships to America. Along with apple, cherry and apricot trees, they were planted throughout the Northeast and along the seaboard, establishing a variety of fruits available to the colonists. Even Native Americans helped spread their popularity during their local travels. Peaches were embraced for their sweet juicy flesh and comprised some of America’s favorite desserts, including cobbler and pie. Until canning was perfected, they were mainly eaten in season, either raw or cooked, generously covered with cream. Foodie president Thomas Jefferson had a prolific orchard on his estate and served peaches frequently to his dinner guests.
Although home canning was common, it became a booming industry in the early 1800s, but peaches did not emerge as a commercialized crop until the later part of the century., offering Americans a favorite fruit year-round. Proving to be a popular food for children, canned peaches flew off grocer shelves in large cities where fresh fruits were not as available. Although the state of Georgia is known as the Peach State, the largest grower award goes to California, which turns out the majority of annual peach production, a whopping 715,000 tons per year, compared to Georgia’s 36,000 tons (sorry, folks). Another blow to Georgia is their neighbor South Carolina gets kudos from fruit experts for growing sweeter and larger peaches (go figure). Unfortunately for most of the country, due to the delicate nature and perishability of ripe peaches, they are usually picked underripe and transported. If you’re lucky enough to have a neighbor who has his own peach trees, be nice to him so he’ll let you pick your own. Although popular for eating, their first cousin, the smooth-skinned nectarine, takes a back seat for cooking.
No matter how you slice it, peaches top the hit parade. Available year-round, thanks to canned and frozen, we can all enjoy pies, cobblers and sauces out of season. And if you can find a local farmers market or live in a peach state, so much the better. Your summers are bound to be just peachy.
Author Dale Phillip has fond memories of her mother’s canned peaches and her aunt’s homemade peach ice cream. Growing up in the Midwest, peaches were abundant and usually picked ripe, yielding juicy fruit for cobblers and just plain eating. She confesses to having swooned the first time she tasted a Bellini (and yes, it was at Harry’s Bar). Please view her many articles on Food and Drink and visit her blog: http://myfriendlyu.blogspot.com/
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