Peaches are SWEET this summer in Jersey and Beyond
By Margaret Montet
“The peach is the Queen of Fruit,” he said as he stopped the tractor engine in the orchard. He was Gary Mount who, with his wife Pam, owns Terhune Orchards in Princeton, New Jersey. Gary’s special orchard tractor (narrow enough to fit between the rows of peach trees without damaging them) took us through the orchard where peaches bear names such as Lady Nancy, White Lady, John Boy, Klondike, and Sugar Giant.
Peaches are big business in the Mid-Atlantic region now, but they are not native to this area. They were first cultivated in China before recorded history, and then introduced to Persia, or present-day Iraq, via silk trading routes. They were cultivated in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland beginning in the 1600s. In the early nineteenth century, Delaware was known as the Peach State until a blight called the “yellows” collapsed the industry. Just before that happened, the peach blossom was declared Delaware’s state flower.
Delaware’s passion for the peach blossom may have died down a bit, but in New Jersey the bloom is practically idolized. Just as people flock to Washington, DC, to see the cherry blossoms, peach lovers trek to Gloucester County, New Jersey to view the Prunus persica, or peach blossom. People call Jerry Frecon, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers NJAES Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County, to ask when the blossoms are expected to bloom each year. He designed a self-guided auto tour that guides peach blossom aficionados on a jagged-edged loop through Gloucester’s peach growing country. Blooms come out in mid- to late-April: “Even though we may not be ready to have them bloom, our trees know when it is time to wake up, flower, and begin producing tiny peaches,” Frecon says.
Gloucester County is still New Jersey’s top peach producing county, but the number of orchards is swindling. Coincidentally, new housing developments are cropping up with names containing words like “peach” and “orchard.” Rich Heritage’s Heritage Station farm, also in Gloucester, feels the pinch from so many peaches coming from the West Coast and overseas. “We make the most money from the sale of our peach wine,” he said. Heritage Station, where the blossom tour ends, sells this peach wine. Most of the market is now devoted to wine and wine accessories.
Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey all have orchards that invite peach lovers to come and pick their own fruit, by hand, just as they are picked on the farms. Peaches are ripe only one month per year, usually in July, and earlier in the southern regions. The same tree is picked about four times. This is called “spot-picking” and is necessary because not all of the peaches are ripe at the same time. When picking, people are instructed to look at the background color of the peach, not the red. It should be yellow. Peaches should be fragrant and a little soft, too. If they are picked while they are too firm, they will not ripen off the tree. The trees are pruned heavily in early spring to enable pickers to pick the peaches from the ground. By the way, the thin branches that are cut off are sold in farm stores for around 25 cents a stick. These buds will bloom into peach blossoms once taken inside and placed in water.
Peaches are either freestone or clingstone. The flesh of freestone peaches separates easily from the pit, and these peaches are easier to use for baking or canning. The flesh of clingstone peaches is only separated by a knife or teeth, and it is the juicier of the two. There are yellow, white, and doughnut varieties. The majority of peaches grown for eating out-of-hand are the yellow variety, and according to the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, the most popular are Flamin’ Fury, Laurol, Candor, Derby, and Harrow Diamond.
Doughnut peaches look like they’ve been flattened, and the stem hole dips down into the peach making it look like a doughnut hole. The main varieties are called Saturn and Galaxy. These bite-depth peaches are actually easier to eat cleanly, making them a great choice for lunch boxes. “If you get it dead ripe, you can push the stone out and eat it like a doughnut,” says Jerry Frecon. Doughnut peaches began appearing in the 1990s and can be yellow or white.
As the nation’s fourth ranking peach-producing state (after California, South Carolina, and Georgia), you would expect that the Garden State of New Jersey would probably have some sort of festival to celebrate the peach. The New Jersey Peach Festival is held every July and features a bake-off, a Peach Queen competition, the Little Mister and Miss Peach Blossom Parade, and treats such as peach cider, peach ice cream, peach breads and pastries, and all of the varieties of peaches. This year’s fair runs from July 28-31 at the 4-H Fairgrounds in Mullica Hill, New Jersey.
Margaret Montet, a writer and librarian from New Jersey, writes about topics that make life interesting: medieval art, murder mystery parties, sand castles, kites, canning peaches, and travel. Follow her blog at http://margaretmontet.blogspot.com.
Read more: Delicious Peach Recipes