If I’ve learned one thing picking fruit so far this season, it’s that if you complain to your co-workers who are working in the vegetable garden about having to eat too many peaches (to test for ripeness) they will not be sympathetic.
Aside from tasks like hitching the tractor (which is hard in a completely different way) picking peaches is probably the hardest thing I’ve done yet at North Star. Now, some of you may think that it’s just softness that determines if a peach is ripe. I’ve watched you squeezing all the peaches at the farmers’ market, trying to find the ripest. (You know who you are… I bet you’ve probably learned not to bother squeezing the peaches at the supermarket. You might try bouncing them off the floor, though!) For a few reasons, firmness alone is not how we determine ripeness in the orchard. For one, all your peaches would be dented – with dents that matched my fingerprints exactly.
OK, so color, then? Ripe peaches have a lovely red blush, right? Wrong again. Like firmness, color can be an indicator, but it can also fool you. The other day one of my coworkers happened up the peach row to bring me my water jug (which had apparently thrown itself off the trailer as I drove away on the tractor). It was her first time in between the rows of peaches this season, and she stopped a moment to look around. “Are these like 90% ripe?” she asked, studying the red-violet peaches hanging all around her. I told her that, no, I had actually completely finished picking that section. The trick with color is that it’s the undercolor you’re looking for – the color that develops behind that red blush. In other words, the background color that can range from cream to pale yellow to deep orange, depending on the variety. And the clincher is the color beneath that little stripe across the stem-end of the peach that is shaded by the branch – which of course you can’t see until after you’ve picked the peach.
But to complicate things even further, breeders have been working toward a peach with more and more blush and less and less undercolor. As Lisa explained a few weeks back in a North Star blog post, “In heirloom or old traditional varieties of peaches, the little bit of red blush they developed was a sign of ripeness. So, as people grew to equate ‘red’ with ‘ripe’ on a peach, fruit breeders did their darnedest to breed peaches that were as red as possible before ripening. To this end, we now have countless varieties of peaches that are practically all red, with little yellow (or white, in the case of white peaches) showing way before when they are truly ripe and ready to be picked.” Try staring at those for a few hours, trying to distinguish ripeness by color alone, and you’ll go a little cross-eyed.
Really, though, I’m working with a whole set of clues as to ripeness when picking peaches – firmness, color, size, degree of fuzziness, shape, and placement on the tree, all of which vary with variety. But the definitive factor is taste. Which means that I may be forced to take a bite (or two) out of a whole lot of peaches on a given picking day. Which, even if they’re still a little crunchy, is an occupational hazard that I’ve decided I can live with.
But you might still be wondering, along with many of our uninitiated farmers’ market customers: If your peaches are picked at the right time, then why are they still so hard? I like to think about it like M&Ms – “melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” right? (yeah, right!) Well, our peaches soften on your counter, not on the tree. When picking, we put so much effort into identifying those indicators of ripeness in order to make sure that the peaches have fully ripened (i.e. the sugars and flavor have fully developed) but they have not yet fully softened. This way, you get the peaches home in one piece (no fingerprints to speak of, mine or yours), and they’ll actually have a better texture when allowed to soften off the tree.
There’s a lot of science behind this ripening process – enzymes, metabolism, respiration, climacteric, non-climacteric, ethylene, starches converting to sugars… to be honest, it still befuddles me a bit, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it all. But the important thing is that, science aside, I still know what a good, ripe peach tastes like.
So, moving on to something special to do with those peaches once they’ve softened up for you…
If you want to go the traditional route, here’s what I’m convinced (with all due respect to the grandmas of the world out there) is the best peach cobbler recipe on the planet (Sweet Georgia Peach Cobbler), discovered in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few years back.
Or, for the less traditional route, grill them! I know this suggestion might raise a few eyebrows, but I have tried it, and it is fabulous. And, as one of the other market vendors gleefully announced the other week as she headed off with her white peaches, “I’m going to grill them. Because then you don’t have to make a pie!” It can be as easy as halving the peaches and throwing them on the grill until you see grill marks and smell caramelizing sugar, or you can go one step further and top them with vanilla ice cream or your favorite dessert sauce.
Or for something even easier, add peaches to something bubbly. White peaches and Prosecco are the key ingredients to the classy Bellini cocktail. Or, use whatever red or white you have on hand.
What is it about fruit? It’s so much more alluring than vegetables, and apparently it’s been that way for a very long time. There is a fervor about North Star fruit that is just not there about the vegetables (except, perhaps, the tomatoes, which are, after all, a fruit). There is a wild-eyed excitement about the first plums, the first peaches; the first CSA share might contain for true converts the first tree fruits they’ve had since that last Gold Rush apples disappeared from the fridge sometime mid-winter.
These fruits are raised in the finest gardens, just picked from their local sites. There are sweet-sweet-luscious, full-spouting-fragrant, aromatic-and-perfumed, red fresh-peeled-and-juicy round-eyed lichees from Fuzhou. And from Lanqi District there are sour-sour-tart, shady-shady-cool, soft-limp-green, nurtured-to-the-full, springtime cymbidia with the leaves still on. From Songyang District are supple-supple-soft, quite-quite-white, frost-frozen persimmon cakes soaked in honey and covered with sugar powder. From Wuzhou Prefecture comes juicy-juicy-tender, glitter-glitter-bright dragon-twined jujube balls kneaded in sugar…
– from the Chinese drama Pai-hua t’ing, circa 1250, translation by Stephen H. West
This attraction must be in our blood. We’ve evolved to seek out fruit. In his exploration of human appetite, Michael Pollan explains the draw toward sugar: “Like most other warm-blooded creatures, humans have inherited a preference for energy-dense foods, a preference reflected in the sweet tooth shared by most mammals. Natural selection predisposed us to the taste of sugar and fat (its texture as well as taste) because sugars and fats offer the most energy (which is what a calorie is) per bite.” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 106) And when that sugar is in its natural form as a “whole food” such as a piece of fruit, it’s delivered in its own package of fiber. It’s good for us – our body knows how to process it. It’s the artificial and concentrated forms of sugar (like sodas) that don’t exist in nature that give us trouble. Yet they’re tempting for the same reason that a good peach is so irresistible; our brain is hard-wired for sugar. We know very well that the deep-fried oreos on the boardwalk are a bad idea, but they’re just so good…
But there’s more to this scenario in which we’re drawn towards fruit. Someone told me recently that our sense of smell inhabits a portion of our brain “older” than that of language. In other words, our sense of smell evolved before our capacity for words. Which explains why we sometimes feel such deep and instantaneous associations of smell and memory. Since smell and taste are so closely related, perhaps the same is true for our experiences with food? Why is it that as an adult, we hold onto cravings instilled in us in childhood, both for foods like tomatoes from our grandmother’s garden and for really absurd foods like Tastykakes?
But it’s also a visual thing. When all the various fruit varieties are spread out at market, the display almost overloads the brain circuitry. Something primeval kicks in, and for a moment, all you can see is that fruit. Last week, I heard someone say “oh my god!” as they rounded the corner and stopped in their tracks, confronted suddenly with two levels deep of radiant Red Haven peaches and EasternGlo nectarines. That kind of abundance is rare and fleeting in nature, and if you’re hunting and gathering your food, you had better stop and take notice. The colors in particular catch our attention; reds, oranges, and yellows are cues of ripeness, of a transformation of carbohydrates from an undigestible form to a digestible one. (Prof. Stanley Ulijaszek, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford University, ‘What’s the natural human diet?‘ 22 January 2010)
At market, on more than one occasion, I’ve seen children, too young yet to use words, burst into tears at the sight of our fruit, up on the market table and out of reach of their stroller. From experience (or from evolution?), they know they want that Asian pear, and they can’t have it fast enough. Their parents really have no choice but to quickly buy a small pear and hand it over. (Perhaps another form of evolution at work?)
So, if this is your first season of the fruit CSA, get ready. Because once you’ve tasted really good fruit, there’s no turning back. It’ll ruin you on supermarket varieties. Since you’ve joined the CSA, you’re probably already disillusioned with the standard offerings of fruit, so it’s no surprise to you that the peaches are picked way too early and the apples are stored in special holding facilities for up to an entire year. People are so surprised when they taste fresh, ripe fruit, sadly because it’s often a flavor that they haven’t experienced ever, or at least for years. I had literally not eaten a good plum until I was twenty-six years old, and it was a revelation. Juicy, tropical, layers of complex flavors unfolding in my mouth… Those ‘aha’ moments can convert you into loving new foods and introduce you to a whole new world of flavors. Treating yourself to all this fruit for the next twelve or fifteen weeks may appear to be purely an act of pleasure, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the taste factor of the CSA is actually more important than that. After years of delving more and more deeply into the realm of farm-fresh foods, my tastes have literally changed. What I perceive as “food” has changed as well. I really do notice a difference between foods that are fresh, alive, and tell a story about place, and lifeless and lackluster foods that traveled to me via tractor trailer and conveyor belt.
If you have children, you’ve probably already tried to convince them of this: you can train your taste buds. It’s important that we know what a summer apple tastes like versus a fall apple. It’s important that each one of us has our favorite plum variety of the season. In agriculture as in natural ecosystems, biodiversity equals health. If our taste buds are conditioned for a narrow range of foods, then we’ve been conditioned to support monocultures and industrial agriculture. If the only tastes we can distinguish are a Granny Smith apple from a Red Delicious, then our palate is supporting mega-orchards of just a few varieties bred for standardization, storage, and shipping. But if we can appreciate a Pristine apple in July and a Gold Rush in November, knowing that if we were to travel to Vermont or to North Carolina that different varieties would be on the menu, then our palate is paving the way for a more sustainable and biodiverse agriculture.
As Wendell Berry has famously written, “…eating is an agricultural act. Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true. They think of food as an agricultural product, perhaps, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture. They think of themselves as ‘consumers.’ If they think beyond that, they recognize that they are passive consumers. … Eaters… must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” Luckily for us, eating from a more sustainable system tastes good. Good enough in some cases to elicit poetry, or at least some fanciful prose. After all, I’m willing to bet that those “sweet-sweet-luscious” thirteenth century Chinese fruits were picked on some pretty healthy farms.
In the film of this name (1966), the basic plot revolves around three gunslingers competing to find a treasure of buried Confederate gold. The film is full of gunfights, hangings, Civil War battles, and prison camps; it’s a real Wild West romp.
Here in the Savage East (2010), we’ve also got our share of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We grow our fruit on three different properties (two leased, one owned), and they compete (in their own way) to develop a treasure of amazing fruit. Each property has its strengths and weaknesses, and we never know, until the suspenseful ending of harvest season, which one will prevail. Fortunately, there are not often gunfights, hangings, Civil War battles, or prison camps involved in the process.
Perhaps the analogy ends here, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly came to mind as Trouble (note the capital ‘T’) appeared in town on Sunday, July 25th around 3:30 PM. We’ll perhaps look at the three in reverse order:
The Ugly: Young fruits practically exploded by golf-ball sized hail. (Ok, so there are explosions in our story, if not actual gunfights). But, some fruits just had flesh wounds, and the majority of by-standing fruit got through the battle completely unscathed.
The Bad: Evil no-good hailstorms (dressed in black with face masks, no doubt) triggered by too-hot weather and the tumultuous weather patterns appeared on the scene. Fortunately, they can only be in one place at one time, so our other two orchard locations saw neither hide nor hair of them.
The Good: The (many) remaining citizen fruits of outstanding character who stood up to the onslaught are still strong and upstanding. We are thankful and awed by their bravery and fortitude. Three cheers to the brave heroes!
Ok, so we’ve seen dry dusty conditions out there this year – even a tumbleweed or two. We’ve just seen some amazing explosions. And earlier in the season, there were plenty of hangings (weighing down tree limbs to train them into the right position). What’s next? Only one thing – the amazing fortune of colors, sugars, and flavors!
How to pick a peach depends upon who’s picking it: the commercial farmer, the grocery store shopper, the local small farmer, and the farmers’ market shopper. Let’s look at all of them!
The Commercial Farmer: By this, I mean the big mega orchard grower (growing hundreds or even thousands of acres of peach trees!), who wholesales most, if not all of his production. Typically, this grower will pick on a calendar schedule, regardless how not-ripe the peaches are. His goal is to pick a peach which is hard enough to withstand not only shipping over long distances (across country or into a different country altogether) but also can hold up to bouncing around in trucks, ships, and planes for several weeks to a month before it is selected by a customer (usually at a grocery store). To make things easier for this grower, fruit breeders have bred for more and more red skin color on peaches. (By breeding, I don’t mean genetic tomfoolery but good old-fashioned sexual propagation between two peach trees). In heirloom or old traditional varieties of peaches, the little bit of red blush they developed was a sign of ripeness. So, as people grew to equate ‘red’ with ‘ripe’ on a peach, fruit breeders did their darndest to breed peaches that were as red as possible before ripening. To this end, we now have countless varieties of peaches that are practically all red, with little yellow (or white, in the case of white peaches) showing way before when they are truly ripe and ready to be picked. This suits the big mega peach farmer quite well, so he picks when the red color is there and ships them off.
The Grocery Store Shopper: This may have been you at one point or another (it was certainly me many years ago!). You go into a grocery store where they have, piled in tall pyramids of red color, heaps of lovely-looking peaches. Perhaps they’re labeled tree-ripened or local. Perhaps they’re just labeled with a price. Regardless, they look so lovely you just have to take some home. The question next is how to get those rock-hard beauties to soften up? This is where the “ripen in a paper bag” notion came in. As commercial (ie. the aforementioned red-before-they’re-ready) peaches came to the forefront, it became obvious that it was difficult to get the danged things to soften up at home. Fruit gives off ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent. So, by placing the peaches in a paper bag, the notion is the gases will be trapped in the bag and hasten ripening. Problem is, when peaches are picked way-too-early, they essentially die and cannot give off ethylene in the first place. Additionally, since they’ve been shipped and stored in refrigerators for weeks-on-end, any potential flavor components are essentially shot. So, oftentimes those grocery store peaches end up either never softening up properly or they’re mealy or end up moldy before they are eatable. As I always say, just as with grocery store tomatoes…just say NO to grocery store peaches! There’s no point in wasting your money.
The Local Small Farmer: A small farmer (like us!) who sells all (or most, depending on the farm) of their peaches directly to the customer, has a lot more work to do, actually, than the big mega-farmer, in order to pick peaches. For those like us, we want to make sure the peaches are ripe enough that they’ll develop the proper juicy texture and luscious flavors. But in order to do this, we can’t just pick based on red color. We have to look at the ‘undercolor’ of the peach, which can vary from white to brilliant orange depending on the variety. We also have to do some taste-testing (a nice perk of growing fruit, although there really can be too much of a good thing sometimes!). Each and every variety is different in appearance, ripening time, color and undercolor, and flavor, so picking at the optimal time can take several years of learning, evaluating, and note-taking. We also like to make sure that peaches don’t end up already bruised at the farmers’ market or CSA share, so we have to figure out when the optimal time is to pick them that they only have two or three days to go before they’re perfectly juicy and delicious. We have to ‘spot pick’ each tree about 3 times, picking the peaches as they mature instead of all at once. And then we have to get them into the hands of the people who will eat them in fairly short order. Whew!
The Farmers’ Market Shopper: When you shop at a farmers’ market for a peach (remember, you’ve said NO to grocery store peaches!), usually all you need to do is decide which peach to get. If you are buying from a reputable orchardist, the hard part (as mentioned above) has been done for you. Your job is to decide: white or yellow? (whites tend to be sweeter; yellows tend to be ‘peachier’) Peach or nectarine? (nectarines are essentially peaches without fuzz…so give them a try – but not from the grocery store!), large or small fruits (although size doesn’t necessarily matter. Some varieties are genetically smaller and some are larger). If there are several varieties available for sale…which to choose? Most small growers raise many kinds of peaches. Each variety ripens over 7 to 10 days and then the next variety comes into rotation. While many growers just lump them altogether as ‘peaches’, some (like us) like to keep each variety separate and named. Oftentimes, most peaches taste very similar (which is why many growers just lump them together), but sometimes there are standout varieties. So, which to choose? Just ask which one we like the best. You might often get a “well, they’re all pretty much the same and yummy”, but some weeks there will be a definite favorite. Then, just take them home and set them on the counter for a day or two or three (NOT in a bag!). Give them the ‘squeeze’ test. When soft to your liking, grab a napkin and enjoy!
I really like those in-between times of the year, when spring blossoms into summer, summer fades away into fall, when fall hardens into winter (just kidding on that last one). Seasonality is more tangible; you feel on the cusp of something new, even though you’ve experienced it every year of life so far. Perhaps it’s because my birthday falls during one of those times, but I also like that these passages are rooted in natural phenomena: the shortest day of the year, the longest, and those with equal proportions of day and night. Our cultural ideas of the seasons don’t always match up – we embraced summer weeks ago, pulled out our white linen and headed down the shore, but summer officially begins on Monday, June 21st (at 11:28 am to be precise, if you’re hanging out in Greenwich, England). And I’m always amazed (and thankful) that on the first day of winter (winter solstice, the shortest day of the year), the days actually begin to get longer. Winter’s just begun, but the sun is returning. The flip side, however, is that summer solstice signifies the days getting shorter.
Not to get too scientific or biodynamic-sounding on you (because I’m not qualified in either realm), but this seems fitting in the orchard. Spring is the time of new growth: flowering, fruit set, shoot extension. As the days get longer, the branches also elongate (about 12 to 18 inches, for example, in healthy, productive apple trees each year). Spring is now past; vegetative growth has slowed or stopped, and fruit is enlarging and ripening. As the days shorten once again, the accumulation of all that rampant sunshine, transformed by photosynthesis into carbohydrates, is expressed in the fruit. And in the garden at large, planting is almost over; we’re buckling down to reap the harvest for the next several months. The natural cycle – of growth, fruiting, harvest, storage – is of course in line with the seasons.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the bloom at North Star, and you’ve tasted the results of the harvest, but what’s going on in the orchard in that in-between time, before spring gives way to summer and that glorious six months of the year when there’s fruit to harvest? What have we been up to? Certainly not sitting around twiddling our thumbs and watching the fruit ripen on the trees. Spring is a very busy time of year in an orchard, especially in a young orchard like the three-year old orchard in Cochranville.
Unthinned Esopus Spitzenberg
Thinning and spreading. These are the key words. What exactly are we thinning and spreading? It sounds like we’re preparing to paint a house, or perhaps deal with an oil spill. Thinning is a literal thinning out of the fruit. As soon as bloom is over and pollination has taken place, you can see the tiny fruitlets forming at the base of each flower. Every flower has an ovary, and if it’s pollinated, it will form a fruit. The trees do some of their own thinning. “June drops” are the fruitlets that fall off the tree of their own accord (yes, right around June). They’re easy to spot – the fruits aren’t sizing up, and they’re a different color, often a not-so-healthy shade of yellow. Even still, the “fruit set” of a tree is, in our opinion, usually overambitious. The tree doesn’t generally thin enough to meet human standards. The fewer fruits on a tree, the bigger and juicier those fruits become. The tree has a certain amount of resources to spend, and if there are “too many” fruits left on the tree, those sugar resources will be spread awfully thin.
Thinned Gold Rush
So we come in, armed with red clippers if it’s Asian pears, or just fingers if it’s peaches or plums. We remove a lot of fruit, leaving just one every four or six or eight or twelve inches, depending on the variety of tree. As we thin, we’re also selecting for the biggest, nicest, undamaged fruits with the best position on the branch. Catch the Asian pear thinning action on YouTube. Every spring the crew spends weeks and weeks working their way through the orchard, branch by branch, tree by tree.
Spreading, one of the main strategies in tree training, is crucial for the development of young orchard trees. Training and pruning are the two main tools we have for shaping fruit trees, to guide them into the desired form and structure. Well-trained trees will need less corrective pruning later on and will develop a stronger, more fruitful framework, even producing fruit at a younger age. The goal of branch spreading is to “set” the branches at an ideal angle. Branches that grow very upright are vegetative, produce less fruit, and have weak angles. In other words, they form a sharper angle relative to the trunk of the tree, which is more likely to break under the weight of developing fruit. Branches with wider angles (30 to 60 degrees from the trunk is ideal, depending on which tree you’re talking about) are desirable because they will produce more fruit and are stronger, less likely to break. Without getting too technical, this works because there is an inverse relationship between vegetative growth and fruiting growth in trees. The more vegetative growth (i.e. leaves and branches) the tree puts its energy into, the less fruit it produces. Inside the tree, this is all controlled by hormones with fun names like auxins and gibberellins. By simply manipulating the position of a branch (up or down) you can manipulate the expression of these hormones. Pull a branch down, and it will produce more fruit sooner.
Tied plum tree
So, during that window in spring when the tree is actively growing and the branches are more pliable, we head into the orchard to do what I’ve affectionately referred to as “torturing baby trees.” The angles of very small branches can be affected by tools as small as a toothpick or clothespin. Larger branches are spread with metal spreaders of various lengths with pointy ends. One end sticks into the trunk and the other holds the branch in place at the desired angle. Another more drastic, and effective, approach is to tie branches down. A clip is inserted into the ground that holds a loop of string. Another string is then attached that connects the loop to the branch in question, holding it in place. Some of the trees (plums especially are notoriously vigorous) wind up with so many strings that it looks like some kind of Maypole celebration is happening in the orchard. By the end of the season’s growth, the tree’s new woody tissue will have hardened, and the angle we’ve chosen will become permanent.
I wish I could say that we were done thinning and spreading for the season, just in time to celebrate the solstice. But on a farm, there’s always more to be done, and, inevitably, it should have been done yesterday. I wish we were ready to simply revel in the ripe fruit coming off the trees (the first plums were harvested on Friday!), but there are more apple and peach trees to spread, more peaches and pears to be thinned. I suppose it’s also fitting that on the longest days of the year, there’s the most to be done.
When mid-May hits, a flurry of activity begins in the orchard. It’s fruit thinning season!
Remember all those gorgeous blooms of spring? Well, almost every one of those blooms sets a baby fruit…and there are just too many on each tree. From the tree’s perspective, this is a good thing. Since it’s just aiming to reproduce, the more potential seeds the better. From the perspective of a fruit eater, however, there’s just too many fruits on a tree. The development of excellent flavor is dependent upon the balance of the fruit load and the energy a tree can put into it. For nearly all fruit trees, we have to thin off quite a number of baby fruits, so the tree can put its energies (and sugars!) into the fruits that remain.
Apple, peach, and plum thinning can go relatively quickly (although in the case of plums, it can take an entire day to thin one single tree!). But thinning Asian pears is what takes up most of our time in the orchard during thinning season – both because we have so many trees and they set so many little fruits! One of our helpers a few years ago took it upon herself to count how many pears she cut off a single full-grown Hosui Asian pear tree, and the result was right around 2000! That’s 2000 individual cuts per tree to get the job done. (quite frankly, Mo, I’m not sure I really wanted to know that!)
Time flies by though – most of us listen to ipods or other listening gizmos. Once you know what you’re doing, the task isn’t too hard and it’s nice to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while working. Personally, I get a lot of ‘reading’ done during thinning season – cool!
Fruit thinning season finishes up (hopefully!) by mid- to late July.