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Though their common name—stone fruits—sounds appropriate for a garage band, these summer gems are actually all botanical cousins of the rose. And what impractical creatures they are. They refuse to be eaten politely, thanks to their soft, raggedy pulp and prolific juices. Pack them in a lunch box, and they collapse into a mass of sticky bruises. Even their appearance is slightly indecent, with tender flesh swelling beneath skin indented by a gentle cleft.
Yet so delectable is their flavor that gardeners, cooks, and scholars have happily overlooked these shortcomings since 2000 B.C., and were often moved to extol their virtues in poem and song. Along the way, inquisitive people also found value in the pits, from which they extracted remedies for impotence, tumors, and baldness (for the latter you had to boil peach pits in vinegar, then tie them to your head, which, if nothing else, ensured that no one would think baldness was your primary problem). Treachery, too, resided deep within these fruits, for those pits also contain cyanide, useful for dispatching a tiresome king or bothersome spouse.
But seductive stone fruits have grown scarce of late, at least if you shop in grocery stores. Yes, spectacular versions persist, but to experience them you have to visit an orchard or greenmarket where locally grown, tree-ripened fruit is sold. "There is fruit out there that tastes so good, you would not believe it," says Thomas Gradziel, professor of plant sciences at the University of California, Davis. That's because stone fruits accumulate sweetness and perfume—or "volatile aromatic compounds," as Gradziel puts it—only while they cling to the branch, unlike apples, kiwis, pears, and bananas, which gather starch while growing and turn sweet after they're picked. "With stone fruits, tree-ripe is best," says Gradziel, "but it's also softest. For a long time, commercial growers solved this by harvesting the fruit early, while it was still hard and would ship well."
Growers weren't the only ones trying to fix stone fruits' so-called problems. Horticultural scientists also went to work, engineering fruits that would look good in the store. They fiddled with color, and plums got darker (the better to hide blemishes). They tinkered with size, and peaches got bigger (the better to catch a shopper's eye). They adjusted firmness, and stone fruits got harder, until the specimens that filled grocers' shelves had all the charm of raw potatoes.
That may be about to change, according to Carlos Crisosto, professor of postharvest physiology at UC Davis. "Quality used to mean fruit that arrived at a store in good condition: firm, attractive, no decay," he says. "It was what the distributors wanted. Now it will mean what the consumer wants—fruit that tastes great when you get it home." To provide that, he's developed new ways to pack, store, and ship riper fruit, while his colleagues have been cross-breeding to reintroduce flavor. "We're using this multidisciplinary approach to save the peach, plum, and nectarine for the consumer," says Crisosto.
One person who can appreciate these efforts is Hugh Acheson, chef and co-owner of three Georgia restaurants, including Five and Ten in Athens and Empire State South in Atlanta. Summertime in his kitchens has always been a sweet, happy glide from peach-buttermilk ice cream to plum tarts, from nectarine sorbet to apricot soup. After all, stone fruits' imperfections can be easily masked by the cook who adds a little extra sugar to compensate for sourness or bakes a hard fruit until it's meltingly soft.
But for Acheson, no dessert has ever tasted quite as delicious as a fat, ripe peach eaten out of hand. "Summer for me is all about the search for the perfect peach," he says. "You find it, you eat it, it's gone."
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