8.12.2010

The Local Food Report: peaches—for 85 years

Howard Crowell likes to say he's been farming peaches 85 years. It's a bit of a stretch—he's 86—but you get the idea. His first solid memory of the orchard is 1930, he says, the year his grandmother came to live with them. He can still picture her picking—and the peach trees were mature—so he imagines that stretches them back at least another ten years.

(Crow Farm pickers, 1940s. Photo courtesy Crowell Family)

Of course, there are new trees in the orchard these days. Compared to hundred-year producers like apples, peach trees are short-lived. They give you 25, maybe 30 years, and that's it. Howard says the varieties have changed over the years—he remembers names like Red Haven and Hale Haven and Elberta—rotating in and out of popularity.

These days, the oldest trees in the orchard are Reliance, Veterans, Golden Jubilees, and Belle of Georgia. The Jubilees come early and the Reliance are hardy down to negative twenty-five—about ten degrees lower than the Veterans, which are still considered fairly hardy for a peach. The Belles swoop in at the end—the last fruit, big white-fleshed globes, in a July to September run.

The new trees—the ones Howard's son Paul has been working to put in these last few summers to replace the plantings that went in around 1985—have a bit more formal names. They're mostly part of the P.S. Series—a group of cultivars developed at the Department of Fruit Science and Crop Protection of Pisa University. There are eight different strains, all engineered to ripen in succession, so that the farm will have peaches all summer long.

Given the way most of us feel about peaches, I'd say that's a pretty noble goal. The day I ran into Howard at the market, it was the Reliance fruits that were in. They were medium-sized, mid-season, blushed pink and just firm enough to make it home without bruising the skin.


I let them sit on the windowsill for a few days until they were soft, and then it was in a peach-blackberry cobbler with cornmeal biscuits where they met their end. I tossed them with flour, cinnamon, salt, blackberries from down the street. I drizzled in a little bit of honey, then topped them with big, soft globs of cornmeal and butter and cream. They baked into a syrup—hot, purple, bubbling—little orange half moons dotted about. We ate them hot, still steaming, biscuits golden and vanilla ice cream melting faster than we could keep up with in the heat.

The peaches came early this year—three weeks—and according to Howard, that means they'll be gone three weeks early, too. So quick—fire up the oven—and make a quick cobbler before they leave.

BLACKBERRY-PEACH COBBLER WITH CORNMEAL BISCUIT TOPPING

I adapted this recipe from my mother, who adapted it from a recipe my sister found on Smitten Kitchen, that was, in turn, adapted from The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern. Whoever you want to credit, this cobbler is GOOD. Like best-I've-Had-In-A-Long-Time-And-I've-Eaten-My-Share-Of-Cobbler Good. There's something about the cornmeal that perfectly complements the fruit—something about the sweetness, and the almost grainy texture—that seems to fit just right. Feel free to play with the types and amounts of fruit—I imagine raspberries or blueberries would be equally good.

For the fruit:
3 medium peaches, pitted and sliced
3 cups blackberries
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
a pinch of salt

For the cornmeal biscuit topping:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup buttermilk or heavy cream or yogurt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Combine the peaches, blackberries, honey, and lemon juice in a bowl and stir to mix. Add flour, cinnamon, and salt and toss until the fruit is coated. Spoon this mixture into the bottom of a 1 and 1/2 quart baking dish.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut the butter into the dry mixture, add the buttermilk or cream, and mix until a wet dough comes together.

Spoon dollops of the biscuit dough over the filling—it won't cover the entire surface; that's fine. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the biscuit topping is golden brown and the fruit is syrupy and bubbling. Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream.

2 comments :

Patricia said...

just picked up some cornmeal at gray's general store in adamsville thurs so i am onto this recipe soon -- yum! already have some crow peaches and some blueberries picked...btw, i discovered easy homemade sweet cream butter yesterday -- no churning! just let your heavy cream stand for a week or two longer than its expiration date -- major yum!

Elspeth said...

Patricia,

hooray! i am so glad you got to pay a visit to gray's—what a beautiful place. and as for the butter discovery, i've noticed a similar thing with our unpasteurized cream. i think of it more as clotted cream, a la england, but who knows?

best,
elspeth

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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.