A perfect peach is a revelation. I tasted my first in an auberge in the south of France. I was 30. I had arrived, perhaps dishearteningly, to find the room full of smoke (as many still were back then). Jeanette, the owner of the auberge, was chatting to two local boys who had stopped in for a pastis: Luc, missing more teeth that I dared count, and Niko, who was missing an eye. They welcomed me and invited me to sit with them, we were the only people to dine there that night.
While Jeanette lamented the lack of customers, we revelled in her homely cooking. It started with a bowl of olives and pastis, followed by the local Cavaillon melon, served with a shot of port poured into the space previously occupied by the seeds; there was an escalope of veal with a garlicy ratatouille, rough and ready compared to the more refined versions I had eaten in other restaurants, hand cut fries and, finally, a peach for dessert. Just a peach, on a plate. As I cut it open, working around the bruise, I discovered the true luxury of that simple fruit. In fact, the true luxury of simplicity abounded: simple furniture, simple pleasures, simply shared.
I later learnt that Alice Waters famously does the same at her San Franciscan restaurant Chez Panisse. The crowning glory of that meal, a meal that certainly costs more than mine at that hidden auberge, but is created on a similar ethos, can be, in season, a solitary peach – a peach that is allowed to ripen on the tree, a peach that is chosen for its perfection.
A tale of terroir, just as it with the right grape varietal to the right parcel of land, a perfect peach is not a given. It is a fruit of warm and temperate climates – it will not suffer tropical heat nor severe cold. Originating in China, where wild peach trees can still be found, although the fruit will likely be small, sour and fuzzier than their cultivated cousins, peaches and nectarines can be the glory of summer.
Both fruits belong to the rose family, along with other stone fruit such as the cherry, plum and apricot, however, what many may not know, is the peach and the nectarine are, indeed, from the same species – the difference in their species being the level of fuzz on the outside.
Long before the peach emoji found favour for its resemblance to perfect buttocks, the peach had been referenced and revered in literature for its sensual beauty, in part stemming from its textural similarity to our skin. It has also been used to woo, with Escoffier going so far as to create a dessert for Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. It is interesting to note, as a man renowned for his complication and extravagance in the kitchen, this dish remained exquisitely simple – a perfect peach, fleetingly poached to enable peeling, vanilla ice cream and a puree of fresh, ripe raspberries.
Even those in the business of selling the complex see the true beauty of this fruit at its finest.
Select and store
The peach must be chosen carefully. When picking your peaches, as with many perfumed fruits, start by smelling them. A ripe peach will have a delicious perfume and, thus, a delicious flavour. Next, you will want to ascertain texture, noting a peach may soften once picked, but it will not change its flavour – the sugars stop increasing as soon as it is separated from its tree.
The cultivated peach is divided into slipstones or clingstones, depending on how simply the nut comes away from the fruit. Don’t let the clinging deter you – peach juice on the chin and running through your fingers is what summer should be all about.
If you are lucky enough to have a peach tree at home and an abundance of fruit, look into bottling in kilner jars or making a jam – peaches are great preserved and can be made into jam or chutney too.