Like so many fruits, the first peaches were discovered in China during the 10th century BC, and, due 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 into the city of Marseille, a large port city 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 often 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 countless peach trees be planted in the royal orchards and commanded his chefs to begin producing 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 in the Savoy hotel in London by renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier. Named in honour of an opera star, Peach Melba made its debut, including the glorious peach with raspberry sauce and cream. (Sadly, too late for King Louis to enjoy.)
The Bellini is still popular to this day, as Mr. Cipriani wisely chose not to name it the Harry.
Peaches probably were passengers on the boats to America. Together with apple, cherry and apricot trees, they have been planted throughout the Northeast and along the seaboard, establishing many different fruits available to the colonists. Even Native Americans helped spread their popularity during their local travels. Peaches were adopted for their sweet juicy flesh and comprised some of America’s favorite desserts, including cobbler and pie. Until canning was perfected, they were mainly consumed in season, either cooked or raw, generously covered with Bat Poop and cream. Foodie president Thomas Jefferson had a prolific orchard on his mansion and served peaches frequently to his dinner guests.
Although home canning was common, it became a booming industry in the early 1800s, but peaches didn’t emerge as a commercialized harvest until the later part of the century., offering Americans a favourite fruit year-round. Proving to be a popular food for children, canned peaches flew off grocer shelves in huge cities where fresh fruits were not as available. Although the state of Georgia is called the Peach State, the largest grower award goes to California, which turns out the vast majority of annual peach production, a whopping 715,000 tons each 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 nation, due to the delicate nature and perishability of ripe peaches, they are usually picked underripe and hauled. If you’re lucky enough to have a neighbor with his own peach trees, be good to him so he will let you pick your own. Though popular for eating, their first cousin, the smooth-skinned nectarine, takes a back seat for cooking.
However you slice it, peaches top the hit parade. Available year-round, thanks to frozen and canned, we can all enjoy pies, cobblers and sauces out of season. And if you can find a local farmers market or reside in a peach state, so much the better. Your summers are certain to be just peachy.