Peaches would definitely appear somewhere near the top of our list of the sexiest fruit on earth if we ever got around to drawing up and publishing one – which, with a little help from our readers is something we’ll be getting around to. Some time. They’ve always been associated with fine dining and good health but it was probably a combination of the article in the New York Times today as well as the fact that it’s almost the season for them, that inspired us to look at the fruit a little more closely. Peaches (prunus persica) belong to the rose family
as do almonds, for that matter. The fruit originated in the north of China and not Persia* as the name suggests, have been cultivated in China since the 10th century BC (or maybe even earlier) from whence they travelled along the Silk Road to Persia and then on to Europe via the trade routes. They arrived in the Americas with the Spanish explorers and the rest, as they say, is history. In China, peaches were reproduced in porcelain and sung about in verse; dumplings shaped like peaches were specially made for birthdays and even the wood of the peach tree was carved into amulets. The Romans, later, believed that peaches originated in Persia as Pliny said: “as touching peaches in general, the very name in Latine whereby they are called Persica, doth evidently show that they were brought out of Persia first.” Clearly he was very much mistaken and even more so when he insisted that the Egyptians introduced these peaches to the Persians. Be that as it may, even then, there were several varieties of the fruit in Rome where they were known as “Persian Apples.” The French accepted peaches into their gardens with enthusiasm and gave the fruit feminine names – probably inspired by the beauty of the fruit. Amongst the varieties were Belle de Vitry, Belle de Chevreuse and Téton de Vénus (Venus’s nipples).
SPICY POACHED PEACHES AND CREAM
- 6 ripe peaches
- 6 whole allspice berries
- 4 whole star anise
- 1 tsp freshly ground cardamom (remove the black seeds out of the green pods and, using a mortar and pestle, grind them into a powder)
- 1 un-waxed lemon, grated zest only
- 4 thin slices fresh, peeled ginger
- 220g sugar
- Score a cross at the bottom of each peach and put them in a large bowl before covering them with boiling water.
- Set aside for a minute, drain them and then pour in enough iced water to cover and refresh them – set them aside for another minute, drain them and remove the peels (it should be easy enough but take care not to break the peach).
- Pour the cold water, the allspice berries, the star anise, the cardamom, the ginger slices and the sugar into a large saucepan, stir well and bring to the boil before reducing the heat and simmering until the liquid turns into syrup.
- Pop the peaches into the syrup and cover them with greaseproof paper that’s about the same diameter as the pan – cover the pan with the lid, reduce the heat and simmer until the peaches are cooked and soft – around 15 minutes.
- Remove only the peaches and set aside but continue to boil the syrup until there’s only about 200 – 250 ml left.
- Brush the peaches with some of the syrup and allow everything to cool – mix about 80 ml of the syrup into the cream with the lemon zest and serve the peaches with a little syrup and whipped cream.
Although the Chinese had pioneered growing espaliered peaches, the French discovered this method independently, and the growers in Montreuil (a Parisian suburb), believe it was their invention and their recipe for the production of the best peaches. Louis XIV loved peaches so much that he gave a a life long pension to the man who provided him with peaches from Montreuil.
THE LARGEST PEACH PRODUCERS IN THE WORLD
- China – 8,028,435 metric tonnes
- Italy – 1,630,436 metric tonnes
- USA – 1,279,312 metric tonnes
- Spain – 1,159,300 metric tonnes
- Greece – 783,693 metric tonnes
Nectarines are cultivar groups of peaches that have smooth skins – even though “fuzzy peaches and nectarines are regarded commercially as different fruits (with nectarines often erroneously believed to be a crossbreed between peaches and plums, or a “peach with a plum skin”, they belong to the same species as peaches. Several genetic studies have concluded in fact that nectarines are created due to a recessive gene, whereas a fuzzy peach skin is dominant. Nectarines have arisen many times from peach trees, often as bud sports”. As with peaches, nectarines can be white or yellow, and clingstone or freestone. On average, nectarines are slightly smaller and sweeter than peaches and because they don’t have much fuzz, it may seem that the skins of the nectarines are a little more red than peaches – it stands to reason that the nectarine skin will bruise more easily than the skin of a peach. Nectarines are first mentioned in England in 1616 but they were, in all probability, first grown in central and eastern Asia. They were brought to the USA by David Fairchild of the Department of Agriculture in 1906.
- 6 large just ripe peaches – they need to be firm
- 15 crunchy almond biscuits
- 100 g almonds, blanched
- 50 g walnuts
- 50 pistachios, shelled
- 1 extra large egg , whisked
- 1 orange, grated zest only
- 2 generous tbsp honey
- 500g fresh mascarpone
- Preheat the oven to 180 C.
- Halve and stone the peaches, removing just a little of the peach flesh from the middle of each peach half – set both the flesh and the peaches aside.
- Now pop the biscuits and all the nuts into a food processor and pulse until everything looks like very roughly chopped nuts.
- Spoon the stuffing into the peach halves so that you have little mounds sticking out – put them into a well buttered baking tray and bake for half an hour until the peaches are soft and the stuffing honey browned.
- Serve hot with mascarpone or whipped cream for something lighter.
PEACHES IN ASIA
Peaches are important in Asia and are grown in China, Japan, Korea, Laos and Vietnam where they’re a favourite to eat and, because of the many legends and traditions surrounding them, very well known. Chinese legend has that peaches were once eaten by the immortals because it held the power to confer longevity on everyone that ate them. Yu Huang (the Jade Emperor) and his mother, the Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wangmu) made sure these gods would always be immortal by feeding them the special peaches of immortality constantly. The immortals lived in the mother’s palace where they waited for these special peaches to ripen so that the Feast of Peaches banquet could be held. Since this particular tree only blossomed every thousand years and the fruit took another 3,000 to ripen they had a pretty long wait.
MYTHS AND LEGENDS
- In Chinese tradition, the peach symbolizes long life.
- Elder Zhang Guo, one of the Chinese Eight Immortals, is often depicted carrying a Peach of Immortality.
- The peach blossoms are highly prized in Chinese culture.
- It was in an orchard of flowering peach trees that Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei took an oath of brotherhood in the opening chapter of the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
- Momotaro, one of Japan’s most noble and semi-historical heroes, was born inside an enormous peach floating down a stream – also known as Peach Boy, he went on to fight evil oni and face many adventures.
- According to Samguk Sagi, peach trees were planted during the Three Kingdoms of Korea period.
- In Korea, the peach is considered to be the fruit of happiness, riches, honours and longevity and is one of only ten immortal plants and animals which is why the peach can be found in so many folk paintings (also known as minhwa)
- Asians also believe that both the peaches and the peach and peach trees chase away spirits – for this reason you’ll never find them on any table where they venerate their ancestors – unlike other fruit.
- Vietnamese mythic history tells that, in the spring of 1789, King Quang Trung ordered a messenger to gallop to Phú Xuân (known as Huế today) to deliver a flowering peach branch to the Princess Ngọc Hân. This took place after he trounced the Chinese and on the 5th day of the first lunar month, two days before the predicted end of the battle. The branch was a message of victory from a king to his queen as well as a new ‘spring’ of peace and happiness for all the Vietnamese people. Over and above that, because the land of Nhật Tân had given the branch of peach flowers to the king, it became the garden of loyalty of his dynasty.
- In the Tale of Kieu, Kim Trọng and Thuý Kiều fell in love under the branches of a peach tree.
- In Vietnam, the blossoming peach flower is the signal of spring.
- Peach bonsai trees are used as decoration during Vietnamese New Year in Northern Vietnam.
BAKED PEACHES AND CHICKEN
- 8 whole chicken breast fillets, skin on and halved
- 4 large fresh yellow peaches – peeled, pitted and sliced
- 1 heaped tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp cloves, freshly ground
- 50 ml fresh lemon juice
- 1 tbsp sticky brown sugar
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Butter, softened
- Preheat oven to 175 degrees C and grease a baking dish well.
- Combine the ground cloves and grated ginger with the lemon juice and sugar.
- Put the chicken pieces in the baking dish and drizzle the lemon juice mixture over the chicken pieces.
- Dot each breast with a little butter and place the peach slices over the chicken.
- Sprinkle a little sugar on each slice and dot with butter.
- Bake for about 20 – 30 minutes, basting with the juices quite often until the chicken is cooked.
- Serve with a salad and fresh whole wheat bread.
The Spanish explorers brought peaches to the Americas on board their ships where the Indians, in particular, cultivated them with gusto – according to William Penn, there was “not an Indian plantation without them.” It’s probably thanks to the Indians that peaches spread through the country to the extent they did – the first peaches were grown in the southern states because the weather was perfect for peach cultivation. Today California is the major producer of peaches in the USA, followed by South Carolina and then Georgia.
THE LARGEST ORCHARD IN THE WORLD
The largest peach orchard in the world can be found in the far east of Beijing in Pinggu – here around 6,000 hectares with an annual output of 270 million kg in 2009 produces more than 200 different varieties of peaches in four major categories. The lay of the surrounding hills, low pollution, sandy soil, a plentiful water supply and the marked difference between day and night air temperatures, make for ideal peach-growing conditions. These peaches are shipped to 25 European countries and the fact that the Pinggu peach has now been GI** registered, makes the fruit infinitely more desirable. The peaches are huge and have a high sugar content and unique delicious taste and the fact that you will pay a little more for each fruit, well worth while.
Like many other plants in the rose family, peach seeds are a tad poisonous (they contain cyanogenetic glycosides) that can decompose into a sugar molecule and hydrogen cyanide gas. Before you go running to the fridge to dump your peaches – take note that we are talking about the seeds here and that they’re not, by far, the most toxic of the plants within the rose family. The bitter almond has the ‘honour’ so it’s probably a good idea to skip eating the seeds of any plant belonging to the rose family.
Peaches contain a goodly amount of potassium as well as vitamins C and A – they have diuretic and laxative properties and help to stimulation our digestive juices. Peach leaf tea destroys worms – which is surely loads better than buying tablets. As with most foods, prolonged cooking will destroy important nutrients from peaches. Dried peaches are more nutritious than than fresh peaches and are great to keep handy for those times of the day when you’re absolutely starving and dinner’s a long way off. Always keep in mind that most commercially-dried peaches are treated with sulphur dioxide to improve colour and extend storage life. Be sure to read the label if you are allergic to sulphur.
It may be a good idea to have a chat with your doctor if you are concerned that you or someone in your family may have an allergy to almonds or peaches.
- 4 peaches, peeled and halved or sliced – it’s entirely up to you
- 225 prepared sweet short pastry
- 2 large eggs
- 250 g crème fraîche
- 150 g sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- Handful flaked almonds
- Preheat the oven to 220 C.
- Line a 20 cm diameter loose-bottomed tart tin with the pastry.
- Arrange the peaches in the pastry case and then whisk the eggs with the crème fraîche, the cinnamon and the sugar and pour over the peaches.
- Sprinkle the flaked almonds over the peaches and bake until just set for about 25 minutes.
- Serve warm with whipped cream.
* The Persians brought the peach from China before Christianity and introduced it on to the Romans.
** The term GI has been defined as “Geographical Indications”, in relation to goods, means an indication which identifies such goods as agricultural goods, natural goods or manufactured goods as originating, or manufactured in the territory of a country, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of such goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin and in case where such goods are manufactured goods one of the activities of either the production or of processing or preparation of the goods concerned takes place in such territory, region or locality, as the case may be.