The last couple months before stone fruit season are the worst.
The fruit is on the trees, growing bit by bit; you can pull over on just about any road south of town and pretend you’re a farmer doing an orchard check, looking at how the fruit is sizing, farmer-ese for “How big is it getting?” (Likewise, if you want to ask about the organoleptic properties of the fruit, you don’t say “How good does it taste?” you say, “How does it eat?”)
At the end of March or so, we fruit nuts start talking about how much we want a peach right now, standing around in the kitchen, getting our lunches out or peeling an orange. Some of us entirely forgo the Chilean stone fruit season, either for ecologic or gustatory reasons.
Especially for those of us who have eschewed the winter crop from the Southern Hemisphere and not had a peach since October, this conversation and the waiting itself are a pleasant sort of torment, knowing we must wait, and knowing that most years we’ll probably eat our first peach before we should, not being able to resist the first one we see.
I love apples, but around the beginning of May I cease to see them as apples eaten and begin to resent them as the spare and utilitarian fruit they feel like, as I’ve been eating them almost every day since October. They feel like the embodiment of the economic principle of opportunity cost; every apple eaten is a peach forgone.
And I desperately want change, once the spring vegetables start to roll in. Apples’ virtue is their very steady sameness. They are hardy and taut and crispy, everything a peach, nectarine, plum, cherry or apricot is not.
This week was the first peach.
The early stuff has to grow and mature quickly; it gets less time on the tree than the fruit in the later parts of the season does. Stone fruit is bred for timing in addition to flavor and appearance. Because each stone fruit variety is only ripe for seven to ten days, there are hundreds of varieties that make up the season’s progression.
It’s tougher to breed fruit for the start of the season, so early ripeness and flavor necessarily take first priority in the season-leading fruit, and appearance is slightly less important than it would usually be. You’ll notice that these peaches have a prominent point and are a little mottled rather than having an even brush of color.
The point is a trait fruit breeders try to avoid encouraging, as it makes it easy for the peaches to inflict wounds on each other and receive them themselves, but when breeding for the early season, good flavor and the right timeframe trump the point. As far as the mottling goes, these pieces of fruit don’t get the same measure of sun on their shoulders as later fruit will to develop a smooth wash of color. It takes time to develop, and early peaches don’t have the luxury of that.
I sliced one of these fruits into quadrants last night. It was soft, almost alarmingly so, and the knife and flesh made a nearly imperceptible wet zipping sound as I bisected it. I nudged a quarter away from the pit with the blade and a gentle tug, handed it to Chimp, and loosed another for myself. We bit into it.
I made a noise. It was the best first peach I’ve ever had.
I’m hoping that Mother Nature has just been testing our patience this year with the wet spring and its accompanying delays, and that she’s getting ready for a great payoff. Honestly, if what I have here is the first peach of the season, there’s a lot of great flavor to come.