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Shall I Eat A Peach?

Stone fruit is the pits. And that's a good thing.

Neal Turnage Restaurants

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Prunus persica, or a peach, was first cultivated in northwest China. Its Latin name refers to its later widespread cultivation in Persia.

111 West


It hits you when you’re loading kids into the back seat on a midsummer afternoon under a punishing sun at Ruth Hardy Park. The desire for a juicy peach, a succulent plum, a dripping, messy, napkin-defying nectarine. Sweet and tangy, syrupy and satisfying. Fruit that loves your mouth – and defines the season.

A proliferation of taste-free store-bought rocks in many local supermarkets has rendered this juicy fruit the impossible dream. Yet here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be. Plan well and you can buy your peach and eat it, too.

We all know that you can’t lope around the Coachella Valley yanking at random stone fruit trees. The primary peach, apricot, and nectarine-growing area in California is in the Central Valley. Cherries do thrive a little farther south in Cherry Valley, about 30 minutes from Palm Springs. Any closer in and all these babies would be carbonized.

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Fresh peaches from the tree — don’t even bother with the supermarket variety.
Photo by Neil Husvar

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Christophe Douheret carefully removes the ‘stone’ from a peach, prior to a quick sear on the grill.
Photo by Neil Husvar

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Use a top quality olive oil like California’s Hillstone Olive Oil Arbequina and an Italian balsamic from Modena
Photo by Neil Husvar

Stone fruits are botanical cousins of the rose. Even the almond, the nut that screams “California,” falls into the same family; the almond itself is the pit of a peachlike fruit. Peaches, nectarines, and plums are native to Asia. Apricots managed to hitchhike with a westbound bird who subsequently deposited them in Turkey and the Middle East. All, including cherries — thank you, Thomas Jefferson! — eventually landed in the U.S.

Peaches by far have proved most popular. Spanish missionaries from Mexico were the first to bring the fuzzy orbs north. Peach production began in earnest at commencement of the California gold rush in 1849 when eastern supply proved insufficient for western demand. Almost overnight a nascent industry began growing in the fertile fields of California.

Since then, the weather has wreaked all kinds of havoc and driven agriculturists into padded cells. Periodic El Nino visitations have not done much to calm fruit farmers’ nervous dispositions. The 2015 cherry season in Cherry Valley was over before you could say “Bing.” This year, however, looks like a winner.

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A stone fruit sundae! Christophe’s grilled peaches over arugula with cherries, burrata cheese, a drizzle of good olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.
Photo by Neil Husvar

“We still have a ways to go in terms of weather events,” says Brianna Shales, communications manager of Stemilt Growers LLC, headquartered in Washington, which grows cherries as far south as Bakersfield. “But it’s going to be an early harvest and will wind up earlier than history shows.” Feel free to Bing binge, although Shales hopes you try Coral, an emerging variety with glossy dark flesh and a sweet taste.

Shales’ weather woes are echoed by Steven Murray of the venerable Murray Family Farms in Bakersfield, a trusty stone fruit vendor at the Saturday Palm Springs Farmers’ Market. “Last year’s 5 percent [cherry] yield will be compensated for this year,” he says. “We had cooler weather.” Aside from Coral, Murray says Sequoias are good midseason warriors. Then look for those flower child “tie-dye” cherries, redand- yellow streaked sweet Rainiers (a cross between the Bing and Van cultivar). Lapin and Sweetheart come late season and usually are gone by mid-July.


That also applies to the Santa Rosa plum. It hits the first of June and is a goner by July Fourth. This plum’s essence of summer for Jennifer Douheret, owner of Palm Desert’s Clementine Gourmet Marketplace & Café. “Dark purple, very sweet and tangy and … ” She trails off, bordering on the rhapsodic. “We make a plum tartlet with Santa Rosas. Thinly sliced plums on a puff pastry garnished with powdered sugar and apricot glaze.” To keep it simple at home, Douheret and her husband, Clementine’s co-owner Christophe, cut ripe peaches or apricots in half and toss them on the grill. “When they’re nicely grilled, place them over a bed of arugula with soft, creamy burrata cheese, drizzle with highquality, extra virgin olive oil, then add a dash of balsamic vinegar. It’s a super easy summer salad with a good kick of flavor.”

So far so good, right? Wrong. All of these sweet nothings are going to leave you high and dry in the metaphorical desert of sin without knowing stone fruit’s golden rules.

First up, sourcing. Think market not supermarket. “Produce in the supermarket goes through a packing house first for shipping,” Murray says. That means fruit is picked when it’s mature, not ripe. They’re not the same, and the difference is a stone fruit buzz kill. “Stone fruit, for maximum sweetness [perfume and aromatic compounds] and juiciness has to ripen on the tree. The only place you’re going to find soft, tree-ripened fruit is at the farmers’ market.” That doesn’t mean you’ll have a handful of goop in a couple hours. “Even in summer if you keep stone fruit uncovered at room temperature it’ll keep up to four days. Just eat the softest first.”

Second, know your varietals and ask for them by name when you’re at the market. Any reputable stone fruit vendor will have only what’s in season, but being one step ahead of the game never hurt anyone. It might even endear you to the farmer.

“Many of our faithful customers have expertise in peach-tasting,” says John Tenerelli, grower and owner of Tenerelli Orchards, a 35-year-old farm in northern Los Angeles County.

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Stone fruits are also known as drupes. A raspberry is the smallest stone fruit. Its tiny stones give it the name “drupelet.”
Photo by Neil Husvar

Tenerelli has been selling his stone fruit at various farmers markets since the 1970s. He remembers when people stood in line for the season’s first peaches. “Our July Flame peaches ripen mid-July, the point we seem to reach the plateau of prime summer peaches,” he says. (Also delectable; Black Amber plums.) “Mid-July’s Sugar Lady white peach was a big hit with the in crowd last year,” he says. “But don’t discount nectarines. We like our midsummer Diamond Ray along with the old classic, Fantasia.” Concurrent with those varieties, look out for Fire Pearl, a crunchy sweet white variety. “Then come August, the melting-flesh August Snow. For yellow peaches, try the O’Henry or Summer Lady.”

Third, for those who demand proof that these varieties deliver on the promise, indulge in a spectrometer (available online). This nifty hand-held device enables you to test the level of a fruit’s soluble solids, (the percentage of sugar). You definitely need one if you buy at the grocery store. Bill Ferriera, president of the Apricot Producers of California, says the Patterson variety, (“nice firm flavor”) is most prevalent. You won’t get the sublime taste notes of, say, a Royal or Flora Gold. But if you test it out first with your high-tech device then wait until the apricot has a good “give” you’ll probably avoid disappointment.

Finally, think outside the pit. Chef Curtis Stone, of the erstwhile show Take Home Chef, and author of What’s For Dinner?, goes for homemade stone fruit chutney. “You can really taste the difference when you make chutney yourself,” he says. “My go-to stone fruit chutney is a sharp and sweet nectarine chutney. It pairs perfectly with a grilled cheese sandwich as it cuts through the richness of the cheese. But you can also serve it with curries, corn fritters, roast lamb, lamb, poultry, pork, and more. Very versatile.”

For a modernist’s spin on chutney, go progressive. Thanks to Floyd Zaiger, a 90-year-old agronomist in Modesto, the dream of making fruitful chutney and eating succulent pit fruit in midsummer now can be fulfilled in a peacotum, a hybrid peach/ apricot/plum. It’s yellowish and slightly fuzzy with a zingy, tart mouthfeel. It hits the spot in summer.

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Photo by Neil Husvar

Nectarine Chutney Recipe

Can be made 2 days ahead, covered and refrigerated.
Start to finish: 18 minutes (prep time, 3 minutes; cook time, 15 minutes)
Serves: 4


  • 2 teaspoons canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 small white onion, finely diced
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 firm but ripe nectarines (about 1 1/2 pounds), pitted, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt


Heat large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add oil, and then mustard seeds and saute until they begin to pop, about 30 seconds. Add onion and saute until tender and translucent, about 4 minutes. Stir in sugar, vinegar, ginger, and red pepper flakes. Simmer until sugar dissolves. Add nectarines and cook until they are tender but still hold their shape and syrup thickens slightly, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Stir in salt.

From What’s For Dinner? by Curtis Stone. Copyright © 2013 by Curtis Stone. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.