Breeders have come up with stone fruit varieties that ripen in the San Joaquin Valley from late April to October, but the peak for both quality and quantity is right now, in late July and early August. There are so many flavorful varieties, both traditional and exotic, that it’s hard not to go wild and over-buy at a good farmers market. There won’t be much late-season stone fruit from the high desert this year, because of a spring freeze, so now is the time to enjoy.
Elegant Lady, a widely grown yellow peach that originated in 1979, has been particularly fine this year. It has velvety, red-blushed skin, deep yellow-orange flesh and rich flavor, with a classic balance of sweetness and acidity. In seasons when they are brutalized on the tree by weeks of triple-digit heat, they tend to dry out and become mealy, but the weather this year has been just right for them.
Regier Family Farms of Dinuba has them at Pasadena (on Saturdays), Hollywood and Santa Monica (on Wednesdays). A neighbor, John Hurley of Summer Harvest, brings organic Elegant Ladys to Venice, Santa Monica (Virginia Park and downtown on Saturdays), Playa Vista, Mar Vista and Beverly Hills.
A freakish but delicious variety called Lady Nancy, which will start to show up in markets next week, looks mostly like a regular white peach, large with a partial reddish blush; but it has a distinctive yellow stripe, in both skin and flesh, along the suture, the line that runs from the stem to the calyx. Mike Naylor, who grows 3 acres of the variety in Dinuba, obtained it from Burchell Nursery when it was a numbered selection and gave it his own name, “Gold Line,” but the variety was patented in 1989 as Lady Nancy. It originated in Hammonton, N.J., as a natural limb sport of Jerseyqueen, a standard yellow variety in the area. Such mutations, called chimeras, are rare and sometimes genetically unstable, but this one can be reproduced true to type by grafting.
Whatever the genetics, Lady Nancy did not succeed commercially on the East Coast because of its susceptibility to disease, but it is a favorite among home gardeners and flourishes in the drier climate of California. Like old-fashioned white peaches, it is extremely delicate when ripe, quickly bruising when squeezed. The harvest begins on Tuesday, says Naylor, and Debi Florendo, who calls herself the “Fruit Fairy,” will offer Naylor’s Gold Lines starting next Sunday (Aug. 7) at the Long Beach, Hollywood and Mar Vista markets; they’ll also be at Grow, a store in Manhattan Beach. Hurley will have them the following weekend at his farmers markets.
For a traditional yellow nectarine, you can’t do better right now than the classic Fantasia, a USDA variety from 1969. A grandson of Le Grand, the first commercially successful yellow nectarine, Fantasia retains much of the intense wild flavor of original nectarines. They have largely been replaced by larger, redder and less flavorful varieties, but Balderama Farms of Orosi still has 200 trees and sells at the Santa Monica (Virginia Park on Saturdays and downtown on Wednesdays) and Crenshaw markets.
If you like a low-acid yellow nectarine that can be eaten when it is firm, there’s Honey Royale, one of a whole line of Zaiger-bred varieties in the Honey series that now extends from May through August. Several growers market them creatively as “mango nectarines,” although they differ from the original selection sold under that name by Ito Packing, which had a blushless all-gold skin and traditional acid balance. Some vendors like to insinuate that such fruits are hybrids of mangoes and nectarines, but that’s not so, and such a cross would be genetically impossible.
Ken Lee of Reedley (Torrance, Hollywood, South Pasadena) and Arnett Farms of Fresno (Culver City, Irvine and Brentwood, among many markets) both offer Honey Royale and similar varieties.
By now there are several dozen varieties of Pluots, the plum-like hybrids of plum and apricot bred by Zaiger Genetics, many of which ripen at this time and can confuse even savvy fruitophiles with their varying quality. One of the first, and still arguably the best, is Flavor King, which drives growers crazy because of its shy bearing and tendency to drop from the tree at the slightest breeze. It’s not a surprise that some growers harvest them immature, but at its best, Flavor King offers the whole package: firm and meaty but juicy flesh, and rich, intense, very sweet flavor. Later-generation Pluots taste mostly of plum, but the Flavor King still has a touch of apricot that lends complexity and interest.
Scott Farms of Dinuba (Mar Vista, Santa Monica Wednesdays) and Ken Lee sell Flavor King, although it’s important to select specimens that have purple skins, not dark red; Art Lange (Honey Crisp) is famous for the quality of his fruit, sold at Santa Monica (Wednesdays) and Beverly Hills.
Another distinctive Zaiger variety worth looking out for is the Spice Zee nectaplum, a complex hybrid of nectarine, peach and plum with mauve skin, juicy white flesh and a rich blend of the flavors of its parents, sold by Burkart Farms of Dinuba at Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Curiously, the most mature and flavorful specimens tend to be those with a spidery russet pattern, which provides an indication of quality similar to the freckles on nectarines known as “sugar spots.”