In the early ’70s, my husband’s job took us to Yuba City, California, which lies at the confluence of the Yuba and Feather rivers. The region is a lush growing area for almonds, walnuts and peaches. Our next-door neighbor’s mother grew several varieties of peaches on a 6-acre orchard, and as there was a labor shortage that summer, my neighbor recruited her friends to help her mother harvest the rapidly ripening crop.
On a ladder, bucket in hand, I climbed into the first tree. Reaching for my first softball-sized golden orb, slightly streaked with red, I couldn’t resist taking a bite. As the juice ran down my arm, the fragrance and taste of the warm, juicy fruit filled my senses, and I knew this was the way a peach was intended to be. It was called a Rio Oso, a peach selected in 1920 and finally marketed in 1933 by William Yerkes, who lived in Rio Oso, California.
Rio Oso is not widely known outside of the foothill communities because it ripens quickly and tends to fall from the tree. Small growers who can keep track of their trees in late summer usually sell this variety directly on farm stands or at farmers markets. Its juicy, aromatic flavor is a favorite of those who love eating a peach ripe from the tree or using it to make jam or pies. My “pay” for the day was to take home as many Rio Osos as I liked, and I felt this is the fruit that must be served in heaven!
Although Rio Oso peaches are not available in the Northwest, many other varieties are, and August is surely the month of the peach. Peaches are one of summer’s most versatile fruits, but buying the best of them requires a bit of sleuthing.
Due to their perishability, peaches shipped from long distances are picked green and never develop the full flavor, texture and aroma they should. It’s best to find peaches from a local grower, farmers market or grocer who sells high-quality, ripe fruit.
With the exception of apples, most grocery stores seldom feature fruit by the name of the variety. Locally, the offerings are simply yellow peaches or white peaches. But if you can find peaches at a farmers market or fruit stand, the variety is often advertised.
The slightly extra cost for local fruit is worth every penny. It is also important to select organically grown fruit if possible, as peaches tend to be laden with pesticides and are No. 7 on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. Conventionally grown peaches must be thoroughly washed and peeled before eating to be safe.
The versatility of peaches lends itself to many uses. We have a family favorite peach custard pie recipe that we make for every summertime family gathering, party and potluck. In the 1990s, I kept a stall at a local farmers market selling fruit jams, relishes and vinegars. My homemade peach and blackberry jams flew off the shelves, even at inflated “artisan” prices.
There is no more sophisticated summer dessert for an elegant dinner party than Peach Melba when both peaches and raspberries are in season. Peeled, sliced peaches drizzled with a little lemon juice lend themselves well to freezing.
I place about six cups in a gallon size sealable freezer bag, flatten it so the fruit is about one layer thick, and freeze quickly. Directly from the freezer, the contents of the bag can be used for cobblers, pies or other recipes, bringing back the taste, color and aroma of summer all winter long.
Grandma’s Peach Custard Pie
A family favorite — summer just wouldn’t be summer without at least one of grandma’s peach pies!
Yield: One 9-inch pie
- 6 large peaches, peeled and sliced
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- 3 tbsp flour
- 1 tbsp vanilla
- 1/4 tsp almond extract
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 9-inch pie crust *
Prepare pie crust. Peel and slice peaches; heap in pie shell.
Melt butter in small bowl. Stir in sugar, beat in eggs. Beat in flour, and add flavorings and salt. Pour mixture over peaches.
Place in preheated 425-degree oven for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 375 and bake until top is brown and custard is set.
* Note: Crust can be rolled to fit into four 4-inch pie tins if desired. Also, it can be baked in a 9-by-13-inch glass dish, or even single layer in a cookie sheet. We sometimes add blackberries or blueberries.