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Can you find yesterday's flavor today? A special guide to the west's great summer fruit.

White peaches almost an endangered species. More than 100 plum varieties. California nectarines five months of the year.

What's going on in Western markets? Startling changes are taking place in the world of stone fruits (technically, the soft tree fruits with pits).

What we're seeing are more and more choices, and seasons stretching at the beginning and end.

And what we choose now will affect what varieties we can buy in the future.

When there's a choice, most of us pick the largest peaches or nectarines with the most red skin color. So plant scientists keep breeding larger and redder fruit. We reject misshapen or blemished fruit, so most growers have rid their orchards of trees that bear softer or uglier fruit.

Supermarket produce managers have a say, too; they tend to look for fruit that ships well and has a long shelf life.

Only a few decades ago, most fruits were sold within a few hundred miles of where they grew. As local farms gave way to suburban development, most fruit growing shifted to big agricultural districts: California's 465-mile-long Central Valley and, to a lesser degree, Washington's Yakima and Wenatchee valleys. Many varieties were developed to be sturdy enough to ship long distnaces to markets.

On the downside, there's little doubt that some changes have been to the detriment of taste. How well do newer varieties compare with still-available older ones? Which are the tastiest in our markets today? To find out, last summer we assembled a group of tasters who sampled and evaluated 54 of the best and most important stone-fruit varieties. The test results are summarized in the charts on pages 74 to 76.

Personal taste plays a major role in determining which ones you'll like best, but our guide tells you what to expect of each fruit and any special preparation it needs. You'll find some suggestions for ways to serve stone fruits in summer meals on page 152. Directions for canning and freezing them are on page 158.

For top quality, the key is timing

You can't judge quality or value by variety name alone. Other factors are growing conditions and the care fruits get during harvest, shipping, and in the back rooms of markets. Even fruits on the same tree don't grow to the same size or degree of perfection.

Unquestionably, the best-tasting fruits are those allowed to ripen fully before they're picked, but few this ripe could survive the trip to market. The trick is to harvest them when fully mature but still firm: they'll ripen to near full flavor potential. New varieties that are firmer than older ones can be picked more mature--when their flavors are most developed--but this doesn't always happen.

Because firmer fruits aren't damaged as easily in handling, the temptation is always to pick a little too soon; also, earlier fruits often bring higher prices. Quality-conscious growers tend to go through their orchards more often, picking more uniformly ripe fruit. There's no excuse for markets selling immature fruit, so return any that don't ripen properly.

The variety and shipper's name are printed on every container. Because markets don't always display fruit in its original box, and sometimes leave up outdated, incorrect signs, ask the produce manager to confirm what you're buying.

PEACHES

The peach harvest begins early in May in the desert valleys of Southern California and Arizona. Then it moves gradually northward and into Fresno County, where more than half of California's peach crop grows.

Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado also grow peaches on a commercial scale. Much of their crop is sold locally, but some is shipped to other states in late summer.

The first modern variety, and ancestor of today's yellow-fleshed freestone peaches, was the Elberta. There are hundreds of newer varieties now. In general, they're larger, firmer, more acid in flavor, and more colorful than their predecessors. California peaches, grown in volume, are all relatively new varieties.

Peaches are often classed as clingstone or freestone, based on how tenaciously the flesh adheres to the pit. Until recently, clings were the only early peaches, and it was midsummer before the more flavorful freestones were ripe. Today virtually no true clingstones are sold in markets.

A new class of early-maturing, semi-freestone peaches is grown now; when ripe, their flesh separates fairly easily from the pit. some have fine flavor whether eaten fresh, cooked, or preserved.

Most mid- and late-season peaches are freestone; they're usually larger, meatier, and sweeter. ome may be held in cold storage at the end of the season, but they lose flavor the longer they're stored.

Supplies of California peaches usually peak twice: first in late May and early June, then again mid-July through August. In the Northwest, peak season is usually August; in Colorado, it's late August through early September; and in Utah, fruit peaks during the second and third weeks in September. You can expect the best values at these times.

A few small orchards in the West still harvest old varieties such as the standard Elberta and older Hales. A few Rio Oso Gems still grow in Southern California, Colorado, and Utah. Much of this fruit is sold locally, often at "you-pick" orchards and farmers' markets. For old-fashioned peach flavor, none of the newer varieties tastes quite like these old-timers.

Shopping tips. The longer peaches and nectarines stay on the tree, the sweeter they become; they won't get any sweeter after picking. The red blush is a variety characteristic and no indication of ripeness. Judge ripeness by background color, which should be creamy or gold. Green on skin suggests fruit was picked immature. Many newer varieties color up weeks before they're mature, and some have so much red coloring it's difficult to see any background color. Select them carefully; they should "give" slightly to gentle pressure when held in your palm.

Avoid fruit that is shriveled or that shows cuts or bruises. Firm-ripe peaches or nectarines held at room temperature will get softer and juicier as they finish ripening. Store ripe fruit in the refrigerator.

Cooking peaches or nectarines seldom heightens their flavor, but many varieties hold their shapes well and have pleasing, mellower tastes when cooked or canned. Their skins often become tough and look unattractive. Skin may give a rosy color to the syrup, but it doesn't add flavor.

The skins of most peach varieties and many nectarines slip off while they're cooking and are easily removed from the syrup. Other varieties are better peeled before cooking. The chart on page 74 indicates which ones need peeling. Directions for peeling fruit are on page 77.

APRICOTS

The West's first apricot trees grew in California's mission gardens in the 18th century. Today the state supplies about 97 percent of the apricots sold in the U.S. Most of the rest grow in Washington.

In the 1920s and '30s, almost the entire crop came from the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco, quite possibly the best place in the world to grow apricots. As houses replaced orchards there, the Sacramento Delta became apricot country. In recent years, the main growing area has shifted south into the San Joaquin Valley. New varieties were needed to grow well in these warmer areas.

Ripe apricots are one of the softest and most difficult fruits to handle. Even so, the demand for them keeps increasing, so many of the new varieties were developed especially for their shipping qualities.

There's some confusion of names between two of the older varieties, both usually sold simply as "Royal."

The first, Royal-Blenheim, sets the standard for classic sweet-tart flavor, but it often ripens unevenly and from the inside out. It requires careful sorting and gentle handling when ripened to full flavor. There are fewer each year; in some areas, you'll find them only in fancy markets.

Derby-Royals are larger and usually ripen more evenly than Blenheims. They're similar in flavor, but even when properly ripened, they never get as intensely sweet. You won't confuse them if you remember that Derbys ripen early and Blenheims start about the second week of June. The other familiar old variety, Tilton, is a late ripener.

Newer apricot varieties predominate today, for obvious reasons. The trees bear more productively and consistently, producing fruits that are larger, firmer, and usually smoother and brighter in color than the older varieties. In general, their flavors are more acid. The best ones are juicy and have lively tart flavors that some of our tasters preferred to the sweeter older varieties. Others, however, are quite tasteless.

Shopping tips. In the grocery store, look for fruit with as much golden orange color as possible. It should look plump and juicy; blemishes, unless they break the skin, will not affect flavor. Avoid fruit that is very pale yellow or greenish yellow, very firm, shriveled, or bruised and soft. As growers pack apricots, they usually sort out the ripest fruits, considered too soft to ship. This is sold locally or at roadside stands, and--while it offers the best flavor potential--it must be used right away.

Cooking apricots with a little sugar often intensifies their flavor. About half the varieties we tested were firm enough to poach in syrup without falling apart. Others usually made better sauce; some are good prepared either way. The skins of some varieties slip off readily when heated; on others they stick fast. Skins may contribute to the flavor or become unpleasantly tough.

Although nectarines are closely related to peaches, they've been recognized as a separate and distinct fruit for at least 2,000 years. But today's nectarines bear little resemblance to those that grew just 40 years ago. Older varieties were about the size of apricots, with green skin and white flesh; they had sweet, rich flavor but were too soft for anything but home gardens.

By crossing them with peaches, plant breeders have developed larger, firmer, nectarines with today's familiar gold-and-crimson skin. All commercial nectarines now have yellow flesh.

Few of the varieties sold today existed 10 years ago, and more changes are on the way. Trees being planted now and others not yet released will produce freestone fruits as early as May and as late as September. In six or seven years, when these trees are in full production, the season will be nearly two months longer.

California supplies more than 95 percent of all the nectarines sold in this country, and the bulk of them grow within about 30 miles of Fresno. Early-season varieties available now are semifreestone. Some of the best and most versatile freestone nectarines come to markets in late June through July. Most varieties that ripen in August and later in California are clingstones. Washington recently began growing nectarines commercially. Their main variety, Red Gold, is semifreestone; it usually ripens the last weeks in August and the first week in September.

For shopping tips and cooking properties, refer to peaches, page 70.

Our early-season cherries come from the Stockton-Lodi area, where most of California's crop grows within about a 10-mile radius. A much smaller area, centered around Hollister closer to the coast, harvests a few cherries into the first week of July, overlapping the Northwest season.

Washington is the top producer, followed by Oregon and California. Idaho, Utah, and Montana also supply some. The harvest winds up the end of July in Montana and the hills above Wenatchee.

Most cherries are sent to market within 24 hours. However, they can be held in cold storage for up to about four weeks. Cherries sold after the first week of August have probably been stored.

About 95 percent of California's crop are Bings. Lamberts, a second important variety in the Northwest, grow best at higher elevations, where they ripen a week to 10 days after Bings.

You may see Rainiers from the Northwest in markets this summer. Look for these delicate, yellow-skinned cherries with a pink to bright red blush in markets that carry fancy produce. The popular Royal Ann and Black Tartarian are rarely grown commercially but are sometimes available at roadside stands.

Shopping tips. Cherries increase in size, sweetness, and depth of color the longer they're left on the trees until fully ripe; they don't ripen more after they're picked. The fresher they are when you eat them, the better they'll taste.

Select cherries that are plump and bright. Mahogany or reddish brown ones have the most flavor. Avoid any that are overly soft or shriveled, with dark-colored stems.

Cooking cherries robs them of much of their fresh taste, but they stay firm and have rich, sweet flavor when poached in syrup or canned. They freeze well, and make delicious "raisins" when dried (see page 196 of the June 1983 Sunset).

The most diverse of the stone fruits, plums come in a range of colors inside as well as outside. and each variety is unique in the way it tastes when easten fresh and cooked.

The vast majority of plums are of Japanese origin. Most are clingstone or semifreestone, and typically their skin is very tart--even astringent--matched with mild, sweet flesh. Nearly all of the U.S. supply grows in California--primarily in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

A much smaller but important plum-growing district is farther north in Placer and El Dorado counties, extending into the Sierra foothills. Plums shipped from there tend to be sweeter, more colorful, and higher quality. They ripen a week to 10 days later than plums grown in the lower valley, and have longer seasons.

Prunes (purple prune-plums), which are European-type plums, grow well all along the Pacific slope. Washington and Oregon, as well as Idaho, supply most of the commercial crop. Always blue or purple, they tend to be smaller, sweeter, and firmer then Japanese plums. Most are freestone, and they ripen late in the season.

Plum trees live a long time, so orchards usually aren't replaced as often as peach or nectarine orchards. Many of the recent plantings have been firm varieties such as Friar, Blackamber, and Simka. Durability and long shelf life make them very popular with produce market managers.

But growers continue to plant some of the older favorites, such as Laroda and Santa Rosa. (Late Santa Rosa, in market after mid-July, isn't as good-tasting.) Red-fleshed plums, such as Elephant Heart and Satsuma, are scarce; look for them in Oriental markets and farmers' markets.

Shopping tips. It's especially difficult to judge maturity of dark-skinned plums, and they're sometimes picked immature. In choosing them, look for fruit that's full colored for its variety. Plums that give to gentle pressure when held in your palm and are slightly soft at the tip end, but otherwise moderately firm, should finish ripening in a few days at room temperature. Avoid any with skin breaks, brownish discoloration, or that are shriveled.

Cooking plums usually brings out their best qualities, smoothing the contrasting flavors of their skin and flesh. It often changes the color dramatically, too. More than half the varieties we tested were firm enough to cook whole, some were best as sauce, and others could go either way. Because the skin adds so much to a plum's character, it's seldom removed; we've noted a few exceptions in the chart. After you bring fruit home

Most of your stone-fruit purchases, except cherries, may need to stand at room temperature for a few days to become juicy and reach peak flavor. Group them inside a loosely closed paper bag. The ripening fruits give off ethylene gas, which promotes faster and more uniform ripening. Nearly ripe fruit in the bag hastens the process, so check each day and eat or refrigerate the ripe fruit.

To peel fruit easily, put in boiling water (up to 2 lb. fruit in 2 qt. water). After about 30 seconds, drain, or remove fruit with a slotted spoon and cool quickly in cold water. Slip off skins.

Unpeeled fruit should be washed, using a mild soap or detergent to remove soil and wax. (The natural wax coating on fruit often leaves an ugly residue in the cooking liquid.) Rinse well and dry.

To cut fruit, slice around suture (seam) of freestone and semifreestone varieties, twist in half, and lift or cut pit out of one side. Cut clingstone fruit away from pit in quarters or slices.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jul 1, 1985
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