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Gems Among the Stones

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Industrial methods ideally suit the manufacture of certain commodities--jets, cars and computers, for example--but factory fruit farms have proved a dubious blessing for lovers of peaches and nectarines.

They do crank out large quantities of low-cost, nutritious fruit, but over the last three decades, classic peach and nectarine flavor has been degraded by a version of Gresham’s Law in which bad fruit drives out good. Breeders select varieties for productivity, appearance and durability; retailers demand shelf life; flavor is secondary. The resulting commodity, all too often, resembles big red rocks.

The underlying problem is that the links between producers and consumers are usually so distant that farmers receive little extra reward for superlative quality. It’s not their fault that economic survival dictates safely transportable mediocrity.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Premium wine is big business, and there are niche markets for fragile Comice pears and heirloom apples. Indeed, there are a few high-quality growers of premium peaches and nectarines. They receive little notice, however, and that’s a shame, because their offerings take fruit to a level of flavor beyond most people’s dreams.

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In my craving for transcendent peaches and nectarines I’ve spent five summers searching California for the best varieties and growers. As the quest took hold, I also sought to discover what drives these quixotic few to cultivate such sublime but impractical fruits.

Take Art Lange, a 78-year-old former UC Davis plant physiologist who drives 1,000 miles a week in summer to sell his fruit at farmers markets from San Francisco to San Diego. At his farm in Reedley, southeast of Fresno, there’s always a lizard or squirrel scurrying near the entrance to his A-frame home, where stacks of dusty horticultural journals clutter the main room. When Lange walks in from the orchard, it doesn’t take much to get him talking about his famous Snow Queen white nectarines.

“I must be nuts to grow it,” he says with a wry smile. “It cracks, it ripens unevenly on the tree, it bruises easily--it’s totally unsuited for commercial production. The reason I grow it is, it tastes so darn good.”

In fact, many aficionados consider the Snow Queen--which typically ripens in early to mid-June--to be the most exalted of white nectarines. Underneath speckled, leathery skin, melting, incredibly dense and juicy white flesh offers a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity and complex, floral nectarine flavor--much more interesting than recent low-acid white nectarines, which are merely sweet. Commercial growers may regard the speckling to be a defect, but nectarine mavens know the freckles as “sugar spots,” likely indicators of fruit grown in a sunny spot on the tree, and thus extra-sweet and flavorful.

Lange grows about 70 varieties of peaches and nectarines, including many older varieties; he picks his fruit exquisitely ripe and packs them right in the orchard. He also has devised a unique method of drying stone fruit that preserves its color and flavor without using sulfur: He slices it in thin layers and sets them out on thick-meshed screens in the sun, right next to his home.

Surrounding Lange’s property are the vast orchards that make Reedley the center of the California peach and nectarine industry. Many factors account for the area’s low costs of production and commercial dominance, including flat, fertile, relatively cheap land; subsidized irrigation water; sufficient winter chill for trees to set good crops when they break dormancy; plenty of heat in summer to sweeten fruit; and dry summer weather, which helps prevent disease.

Most of the modern varieties raised around Reedley are grown for quantity instead of quality, but Lange’s friend and neighbor, Fitzgerald Kelly, makes a good case for some newer strains, which he grows with meticulous care and harvests really ripe. It’s easy for him to keep an eye on his workers: He lives atop a packing shed in the middle of his 32-acre orchard, in a treehouse-like structure that he calls the Aerie. In spring, the deck seems suspended over a sea of pink and white blossoms.

“Commercial growers don’t want to gamble on picking fruit riper, but with many varieties, best flavor comes in the last few days,” says Kelly. He sets up a gorgeous display of fruit at the Santa Monica farmers market, where he caters to regular restaurant buyers and banters excitedly with customers.

In his spare time, he scours abandoned orchards for promising seedlings and orphan strains, upon which he bestows whimsical names such as “Gladiator” and “Chinese Bride.” Kelly’s favorite yellow peach, nevertheless, is Rich Lady, a standard highly blushed fruit with a firm but juicy texture and good flavor.

A few miles away in Dinuba, Truman Kennedy takes a different approach to farming. A scruffy, folksy, retired school principal, he grows homely but flavorful heirloom fruits that he loved as a boy. Walking around his farm, one encounters a half-coyote dog, waist-high weeds and the rusting hulks of old cars, such as a 1941 DeSoto--he swears to his wife, Betty, that he’ll fix it up someday. He’s convinced that his fruit tastes so good because in spring he irrigates with ground water, whereas other growers use the frigid runoff from Sierra snows, which shocks their trees’ roots.

He’s one of the state’s few growers of the legendary Stanwick white nectarine, which originated at Stanwick Park, England, from stones sent from Syria in 1843. Under its green, violet and russeted skin, its greenish-white flesh has an almost gamy flavor, musky and tangy-sweet, with a hint of pineapple. From its reputation in Victorian England, where it was grown in hothouses for wealthy connoisseurs, it caused a sensation in America even before it fruited. In the 1920s it was the leading nectarine grown for drying in California, though it has long since been superseded by modern varieties.

The Stanwick epitomizes “high flavor,” an ideal dear to Todd Kennedy (no relation to Truman), who once grew 2,000 varieties of heirloom fruit on a property south of San Jose before packing it in to earn a living as an agricultural attorney based in San Francisco. Tall and thin, with a studious manner, he has the tastes of a fastidious Luddite: he judges orchid shows but has no TV, cell phone or e-mail. Pomological classics such as Robert Hogg’s 19th century book “The Fruit Manual” and Edward Bunyard’s “The Anatomy of Dessert” line the shelves of his office. He holds strong opinions, though his highest praise for a fruit is an enigmatic “Ha!” or a phlegmatic “Hmm, not bad.”

The Stanwick’s muskiness makes it “an acquired taste, like pheasant hung until high,” Todd Kennedy says. “I consider it true nectarine flavor, linked genetically to fuzzless skin. Most fruit breeders tried to eliminate it, but I like it and expect it to be in a nectarine. Nectarines today are boring--selected, like many modern varieties, to be inoffensive to the greatest number of people.”

The 1950s and 1960s saw the closest approach to a golden age of peach and nectarine breeding in California. Farmers still picked fruit tree-ripe. Varieties such as Grant Merrill’s Fortyniner and O’Henry peaches, John Weinberger’s Suncrest peach and Fred Anderson’s Late Le Grand nectarine defined the era, striking a balance between commercial requirements and eating quality.

“They were on to some good bloodlines,” says Todd Kennedy. He traces a marked decline in quality to a generational shift from 1965 to 1975, brought about because buyers for expanding supermarket chains started treating peaches and nectarines like any industrial commodity.

Today, it’s easiest to find older and finer varieties in remnant orchards and specialty farms outside the main stone-fruit belt of the San Joaquin Valley. Hardly any commercial peach and nectarine cultivation remains in the Southland, but in Lake Hughes, in the foothills above the Antelope Valley, an inspired and idiosyncratic couple, Kim and Clarence Blain, maintain a small-scale orchard of home-garden varieties.

“It started as a hobby and got out of control,” says Clarence.

Regular customers to the Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers markets know that the Blains may offer, behind a plastic partition (“no touch”), exquisite goodies such as the Nectar peach, a seedling of the Stanwick with milky flesh so tender it practically bruises if you look at it, or the Heath Cling, which originated before the American Revolution.

Another maverick grower who sells at farmers markets, Mike Cirone, can’t always be sure which varieties he has, because many of the 15 orchards he tends in the canyons near San Luis Obispo are small, ancient plantings that had been neglected by their owners. These scattered, unirrigated plots are hopelessly uneconomic for commercial producers, but the dry-farmed fruit has remarkably concentrated flavor.

His offerings change depending on which orchards he’s leasing. Last year he featured the giant Heavenly White nectarine, a superb home-garden variety released in 1982 that proves modern breeders can still come up with extraordinary fruit when they focus on flavor. This season he’ll sell the Early Elberta yellow peach, similar to its famous parent Elberta, the most popular variety from 1890 to 1930. Both Elbertas have good, but not great, flavor--evidence that old varieties aren’t necessarily superior.

Some of the finest stone-fruit growing districts of the state lie in an arc inland from San Francisco Bay, where warm summer days and cool nights help many varieties to mature slowly and develop rich, balanced taste. Much of the region’s farmland has succumbed to development, but in Brentwood, at the eastern edge of Contra Costa County, Al Courchesne’s Frog Hollow Farm has earned a reputation for top-quality organic fruit; it’s not uncommon to find one of his peaches offered for dessert at Chez Panisse, all by itself.

On a mid-August visit to his orchard, named for a murky, amphibian-friendly channel that runs nearby, the trees are so loaded with fruit that many limbs require crutches.

“Quality is a 12-month process,” says Courchesne, ticking off the tasks: fertilizing with compost and planting cover crops in fall; pruning to open up trees for light in winter; thinning crops heavily in spring; and carefully controlling irrigation before harvest.

Like many growers, Courchesne regards Suncrest as one of his best yellow peaches. In his 1995 book, “Epitaph for a Peach,” David Mas Masumoto celebrated the Suncrest as having flesh “so juicy that it oozes down your chin. The nectar explodes in your mouth and the fragrance enchants your nose ....”

Todd Kennedy considers such glorification overblown. “It’s a good commercial peach, but nothing special,” he told me some years ago.

Far more extraordinary, he suggested, is the Rio Oso Gem, a yellow peach from 1933. He claimed that it reigned supreme in eating quality, but (and here his brows knitted) only in its area of origin, north of Sacramento. “No one there grows it now, anyway,” he said discouragingly.

In this last statement, at least, Kennedy was wrong. The next summer, as I visited a wild rice grower, Chris McKenzie, at his home in Pleasant Grove, a few miles south of Rio Oso, I observed a lone peach tree in the center of his garden, set apart as if it were a shrine. I knew what it had to be as soon as I saw the fruit’s rough, raised suture--the beauty mark of the Rio Oso Gem. Its firm, dense flesh had a distinctive orange flavor; tasted a few days later, the fruits were even more rich and complex, and fully lived up to their billing.

Traveling about the Sierra Nevada foothills a few weeks later, I found that Rio Oso also excelled in that region, where many old-timers revere it as the apotheosis of peachdom.

Fruit lovers have long prized “mountain-grown” peaches from Placer and El Dorado counties, where elevation exercises much the same climate-moderating influence as breezes near the Bay Area. Competition from San Joaquin Valley orchards and encroaching development have marginalized the area’s commercial fruit industry, but artisanal growers have established a niche based on premium quality and agri-tourism.

One of the leading growers is Ron Mansfield of Goldbud Farms, near Placerville, who, like Cirone, manages many small orchards and is returning to older, more flavorful varieties.

He has 500 trees of the Indian Blood Freestone peach, descended from fruits brought to America by the Spanish. Of rather unprepossessing appearance, it sports long, coarse fuzz over grayish-green skin mottled with red, as if the ruddiness inside were seeping out. The flesh, crimson all the way through, has a unique berry flavor, derived from anthocyanin (which also pigments raspberries, beets and blood oranges), and a heady aroma.

“You can tell when we’re packing Indian Bloods, because you can smell them from 10 feet away,” says Mansfield. “Even at the end of the summer when you’d think our packing crew would be tired of eating peaches, they love to eat Indian Bloods.”

Isolation seems to encourage growers to concentrate on such neglected but delicious varieties. There aren’t many stone fruit farms left in Nevada County, at the northern end of the foothill district, but 86-year-old Ernie Bierwagen, who owns an orchard, restaurant and fruit stand on the road to Grass Valley, has earned the appreciation of connoisseurs for championing the Silver Logan white peach, a local seedling that seemed destined to oblivion. It’s a giant fruit with dense, juicy flesh so tender that the slightest handling leaves black bruises on the surface.

“Last year when we took a day off to go to the county fair, the Silver Logans that we picked the next day showed every thumbprint, and we had to dump them,” recalls Bierwagen. “But I’m going to be stubborn and keep it. When people taste it, they want more.”

In Morgan Hill, south of San Jose, Andy Mariani has helped preserve the Silver Logan and countless other rare and unusual varieties. A shy, genial man whose family has farmed in the area since the 1930s, he’s at the center of a circle of collectors, amateur fruit breeders and enthusiasts; he grows some 200 varieties of peaches and nectarines, many available nowhere else, and commands a profound knowledge of their history, flavors and flaws.

Mariani’s dazzling array of perfectly ripe, high-flavored fruit is regularly available only at his farm store, but well merits a special pilgrimage at peak season, in July and August.

Some varieties are so hopelessly uncommercial that Mariani has only one tree, or even just one limb. His “Honey"-type peaches, Eagle Beak and Pallas, are exquisitely sweet, juicy and tender, with an intriguing hint of bitter almond flavor, but both have a curved “beak” at the bottom that would be smashed by any handling.

For exotic allure, nothing matches his Samarkand and Tashkent Gold yellow nectarines, with their shining bronze skin and golden, apricot-like flesh. It’s Mariani’s theory that these fruits, which he grew from seeds that he brought back from Central Asia, resemble the legendary “Golden Peaches of Samarkand,” sent as gifts to the 7th century Chinese court. Mariani is convinced that these so-called “peaches” were actually nectarines, which do better than peaches in such dusty regions.

It’s rare that these oddball fruits prove commercially viable. Few heirloom varieties remain, and even fewer can be successfully grown, even by the determined collector. Many, like the Teton de Venus peach grown by Thomas Jefferson, have simply been lost. In other instances, the modern version may not be the same as the original. The greenish-white Lord Napier nectarine, highly praised a century ago, bears fruits the size of golf balls in Mariani’s orchard. “They’re rare for a good reason,” he says.

But Mariani’s quest for super-fruits has also yielded some spectacular discoveries. He’s found an experimental seedling that reincarnates the great Crawford peaches, the standard of quality a century ago, with juicy, golden orange flesh and intense, classically rich flavor--the hands-down winner at many of his tastings. After initially doubting that customers would buy this small, slightly blushed “Baby Crawford,” he now sells every peach he can pick. The days of marketable varieties with high flavor, he hopes, may yet return.

Stone Fruit 101

The peach, which belongs to the rose family, originated in China, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. The nectarine is a fuzz-less (“glabrous”) peach, not, as some suppose, a hybrid of peach and plum. Peach trees sometimes produce nectarines, and vice versa; occasionally, trees bear chimeras, mutations that are peach on one half, nectarine on the other. Originally, nectarines tended to be smaller than peaches, with firmer, more plum-like flesh, and a distinctive rich, winy flavor and aroma. In both fruits, a single gene controls white or yellow flesh coloration; the white gene is dominant.


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