Peach

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YAKIMA, Wash. -- The apple is king tree fruit around here; there’s no denying it and no sense fighting it. But, man, have you had a local peach lately?

That’s where the real flavor is, right there beneath that fuzzy skin. And sure, yeah, OK, fine; peach production in Washington state is dwarfed by that of apples and cherries — even pears — but that’s the last thing you’re thinking about when you buy a box of perfectly tree-ripened peaches at a local fruit stand. (The first, second, third and fourth things you’re thinking are: “Mmmmmm, peaches. Gotta get these peaches home. Gonna eat all these peaches. Mmmmmm peaches.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects Washington state will produce 13,450 tons of peaches this year, up from 12,770 last year and good for seventh place nationally. This is welcome news for those of us who felt as though 12,770 tons wasn’t enough, but it still doesn’t come close to the projected 2018 peach output of California, the runaway leader with 510,000 tons.

“We can’t compete with California on scale,” said James Michael, the North America vice president of marketing for the Washington State Fruit Commission.

But we can definitely compete on flavor. Those California peaches are fine. No, really, they are. (You make very OK peaches, California. You should be somewhat proud.) It’s just that peaches from Washington taste better. Oregon State University scientist Ann Colonna proved that in a series of taste tests over two days in 2007. Nearly 78 percent of the 640 consumers who tasted the fruit preferred Washington peaches to those from California. That’s science.

And those tests were done using store-bought fruit in Oregon. The just-picked, tree-ripened fruit you get at roadside stands in Central Washington is even tastier.

“That’s historically been Washington’s niche, the eating experience,” Michael said.

The eating experience — that’s a pretty good niche to occupy when you’re talking about food.

There are a couple of reasons our peaches are better than theirs. First, it’s a matter of proximity. Places like Barrett Orchards and Johnson Orchards (and lots and lots of others) sell directly via their fruit stands, meaning they can let fruit ripen longer on the tree. A California peach bought in a supermarket wasn’t just picked the day before purchase. A Washington peach at a fruit stand just might have been.

“The closer you get to the growers of anything, the fresher it is, the better, the riper,” Michael said.

Bernardita Sallato, a Washington State University Extension tree-fruit specialist, concurred with that reasoning. But some of it also just has to do with Washington being good for peaches. It has more water than California but still has the heat peaches need, she said.

“In terms of conditions for growing, Washington has some of the best,” Sallato said.

It helps, too, that nearly half of the peaches grown in Washington are grown organically, Michael said. By next year it could be two-thirds, he added.

And, though they’re not the big-business crop here like they are in California, it still makes financial sense to grow peaches. Many local growers shift to peaches to keep their operations running during the dog days of summer.

“If you jumped from cherries to apples, you would have a gap this time of year,” Sallato said.

All of that makes sense and is interesting. But it has very little to do with us, the end users (read: devourers) of peaches. So let’s forget about the business of peaches and get back to that eating experience (which, as you’ll recall, has historically been Washington’s niche).

You can and should — and, if you’re smart, will — just grab a peach and bite right into it this very day. They’re ripe and perfect this time of year, and the moment you bite into your first peach of August is one of life’s best simple pleasures. But eating them plain is just the beginning. There are cobblers and scones and muffins and cakes and salads and Bellinis and compotes and salsas and smoothies and all manner of other peachy things you can make.

Michael, who likes adding peaches to salads at home, pointed out that because of their limited seasonal availability, people have to use their peaches fairly quickly. That can lead to experimentation in the kitchen, which can in turn lead to some surprisingly good recipes. A peach pie is tough to beat, he said, but one of his personal tricks is grilling them and topping them with sharp local cheeses.

“Volume breeds creativity,” Michael said. “Peaches come on all at once. It’s like asparagus; you just eat as much as you can, then it’s gone and you have to wait till next year.”

Keep that in mind, people. Apples will be there for you all year. But those good, fresh, ripe, local peaches, those are tragically, beautifully seasonal. Go eat them. Go eat them now.