Great peaches are available at local markets from June well into the fall, but July is really the heart of the season for the San Joaquin Valley, the state's largest growing area. Early peaches tend to be small, watery and clingstone, and late varieties can be dry and mealy, but right now we're in the sweet spot when many standard commercial varieties are freestone, with luscious melting texture and rich aroma.
Choosing a good variety is crucial, however, because there's also a lot of junk fruit out there, with insipid flavor and rubbery texture, even at farmers markets. Below are descriptions of and farmers market sources for a dozen of my favorite peach varieties ripening in July, including both widely grown commercial varieties and connoisseur-quality favorites. Personally I always want to know the variety and rarely buy from growers who sell anonymous "yellow peaches."
The harvest dates are approximate, based on many years of photographs and tasting notes. This year, peach varieties generally are maturing about a week earlier than average, but this may vary considerably at individual farms. If it stays hot (it's supposed to be 108 degrees this weekend in Reedley), the fruit will come fast and furious.
"I don't have a clue. Every time I turn around a variety is ripening way different than expected," said Fitzgerald Kelly of Reedley.
Growers from the high desert, who provide some of the best stone fruit in the markets, harvest several weeks later than those in the San Joaquin Valley. They are indicated by an asterisk (*).
July Flame (June 26 to July 7 in the San Joaquin Valley; July 12-30 in the high desert): Red skin; firm, deep orange flesh; and rich flavor for a commercial variety. R&D and *Tenerelli.
Fancy Lady (late June in the San Joaquin Valley; July 1-12 in the high desert): Good modern commercial variety. *Tenerelli.
Babcock (June 30 to July 10; Giant Babcock is later): The original and for many years the only available low-acid white peach, bred for Southern California's warm winters. Astringent when green-tinged, exquisitely luscious and aromatic when ripe, but bruises madly. Available from Honey Crisp, Avila, Apkarian, Regier and Sweet Tree.
Baby Crawford (about July 5-15 this year in Paso Robles): The best yellow peach, it has golden orange skin with a slight blush, meaty flesh and the intense, spicy flavor of the old Crawford class of peaches, once the standard of quality. Windrose (Santa Monica on Wednesdays and in Hollywood) is the only local grower.
Nectar (July 5-20): Large, very tender white peach with classic acid balance and a strong vinous flavor, although several types are sold under this name. Honey Crisp and Truman Kennedy.
Suncrest (July 10-22; early August in the high desert): Immortalized by David Mas Masumoto in "Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm," it's a very good peach of its era (the 1950s), with juicy, melting flesh and fine flavor, but it lacks the richness of the very best varieties. Honey Crisp and *Winner Circle.
Silver Logan (July 10-25): The best white peach, the peer of Snow Queen nectarine, has milky white skin blushed with crimson, with dense, buttery flesh, a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, and a honey-like aroma, but quality can be erratic from year to year and within an orchard. Windrose and Cirone.
Elegant Lady (July 10-25; July 18-30 in the high desert): For many years the Cadillac of commercial yellow peaches and still widely grown, with attractive red skin, firm but juicy flesh and rich flavor. Summer Harvest, Burkart, Regier, Scott, Honey Crisp, Arnett, Sweet Tree, Asdoorian, *Tenerelli and *Winner Circle.
Sierra Blanca (July 10-25): Classic white peach, high in acidity and flavor, very fragile. Honey Crisp and Fitzgerald Kelly.
July Elberta (July 13-28): A classic yellow peach, similar to the much ballyhooed Fay Elberta. It tends to be astringent unless fully ripened in a hot area. It's good but not great, one of the first patented peaches, bred by Luther Burbank. Arnett, Honey Crisp and Cirone.
Zee Lady (July 15-30; Aug. 1-15): Large and firm, but it develops melting flesh as it ripens. It's a cross of O'Henry and June Lady, with flavor similar to O'Henry and Elegant Lady. The flavor is good for a commercial variety. Apkarian, Arnett, R&D, Summer Harvest and *Tenerelli.
Summer Lady (July 20-30; Aug. 7-20 in the high desert): Large and firm, a good modern commercial variety. Asdoorian, Summer Harvest and *Tenerelli.