The first impression is of powerful syrupy sweetness. Then comes a tart tang that gives the sugar some backbone. Overriding everything is a mix of complex flavors, both floral and fruity, so mouth-filling they seem almost meaty. The fruit is so ripe the juices drip down your chin; so ripe a peach practically peels itself. Much the same could be said for Art Lange's Snow Queen white nectarines.
To get fruit like that is no accident of nature. It takes a gifted farmer, a lot of hard work and a refusal to compromise.
For more than a decade, Kelly and Lange, good friends who farm within a couple of miles of each other just south of Fresno, have held down opposite ends of Arizona Avenue at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer's Market.
They are far from the only farmers with stone fruit at the market, and they're certainly not the only ones with good fruit. Market regulars rank Burkart Farms, Tenerelli Orchards and Regier Farms along with Kelly's Fitzgerald's Premium Ripe Tree Fruit and Lange's Honey Crisp Farms.
The thing that makes the two different from most other farmers is that they've been growing such amazing fruit for so long that they have come to embody what great farming is all about. They remind us that growing food can be every bit the work of art that cooking it can be.
'They're like little gems'
Other growers have customers; Kelly and Lange have apostles.
Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard, who cultivates farmers the way the Medicis nurtured painters, is one of their most ardent admirers. She can buy from anybody on the planet, but her peaches and nectarines come only from Lange or Kelly.
"Their fruit is so fantastic," she says. "Each piece is treated with such reverence. They're like little gems. When you see the love that goes into everything, you can taste it. The fruit is so perfect by itself that the most important thing to me is to make sure I use it with the same integrity with which it was grown."
Kelly, 58, is a loquacious, good-looking guy, with an impressive head of wavy silver hair and a bluff, Irish charm. Picture a younger, healthier Teddy Kennedy with a farmer tan, perpetually clad in khakis and a faded work shirt.
As he bangs around the 20-acre main orchard he's owned for more than 30 years in a beat-up four-wheel-drive convertible, he can't stop talking about the things that please him about it, whether it's the lineage of an odd fruit tree or the red-tailed hawks and great horned owls that live in the eucalyptus island at the center of his property. He also farms an additional 15 acres just down the road.
He stops to snag a low-hanging white peach off a tree limb. It's so sweet it almost tastes like a sugar cube. "Wow, we've got to test that one," he says and slams back to his packing shed to pick up his refractometer — a device that measures sugar content. It's the same tool winemakers use to tell when grapes are ripe enough to make great wine.
This particular peach maxes the meter at 23% (good commercial fruit will average 11% to 12%; anything over 18%, peach marketer Jon Rowley says, "almost goes beyond the human threshold for pleasure"). Fitz looks pleased and tells about a peach he once tested that posted 30%.
Don't ask him about the variety, however. At least not if you want a straight answer. Kelly grows about 145 varieties of peaches and nectarines and calls almost none of them by their proper names. He loves to make up fanciful monikers. The Lady in Red peach, for example, is really a Rich Lady (his nickname comes from its characteristic deep blush).
But that playful naming shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of seriousness. Both Kelly and Lange stress fruit variety as the single most important factor in great quality. A peach is not just a peach; neither is a nectarine only one thing. For both fruits there are different classes, including white-fleshed, yellow-fleshed and the relatively new sub-acid varieties that taste even sweeter because of their lack of tang. Every market day for these two, their stands will be fully stocked with all these variations, and more.
Within each of these classes are dozens, if not hundreds, of possible varieties, each with a slightly different character. Some are firm; others are melting. Some are more aromatic than others or have higher acidity or slightly different shades of flavor.
Some have special characteristics that can only be appreciated by a farmer — they are resistant to certain diseases that may be prevalent in the grower's area. And some are grown for relative ease of handling — many old varieties have fallen from favor because they have a sharp beak at the bottom that frequently breaks during handling, increasing the odds of spoilage.