“Never refrigerate a peach,” Ruth Reichl says. “Cold is a thief, waiting to rob it of flavor.” FROGHOLLOW.COM
Do you remember the first thing you ever tasted that shook you to your core? That childhood morsel that showed you how happy food can make you? Most of us keep the memory tucked away, a half-forgotten promise that is always there, waiting to be fulfilled.
For me it was a perfectly ripe peach. I was only two, but I will never forget the feeling of the sun on my arms and the slight scratchiness of the picnic blanket I was perched on. But what I remember most is the joyous shock of the soft, sweet flesh and the wash of peach juice rushing through my mouth.
For years I chased that flavor, only to be disappointed by pallid fruit so crisp and fragrance-free I was convinced some alien species had replaced the peaches of my childhood. It took 30 years, but one day I walked into Monterey Market, in Berkeley, California, and found the air perfumed with the elusive scent of peaches. That fragrance was so familiar! Almost in a trance I reached for a peach and took a bite. And almost fainted—the flavor was that intense.
“They’re good, aren’t they?” said the owner, who obviously understood. I nodded, speechless, as I filled a basket with fruit the color of a sunset. I wanted everyone I knew to share in this experience.
“That must have been about 1979, which was the first time I took my peaches to Monterey Market,” says Al Courchesne, sounding inordinately pleased. “At that point I had been farming peaches for only a couple of years, and I drove a few boxes down to Berkeley to see if they wanted any. The owner, Bill Fujimoto, took one bite and said, ‘I’ll take everything you’ve got.’ Back then we had only 13 acres, but word spread, and before long we had all kinds of people driving out to the farm. Then the chefs found them. Every time I got some money, I bought more land; today we’ve got 242 acres at Frog Hollow Farm. You know, here in Brentwood it’s like Eden: You can grow anything. Even a novice farmer like me couldn’t miss.”
Farmer Al (everybody calls him that) is being modest. If peaches were that easy we wouldn’t be stuck with the flavorless hardballs that go around masquerading as the real thing.
“Okay,” Farmer Al finally admits, “the key isn’t just good soil; it’s leaving the fruit on the tree until the peaches are really ripe. The problem is that when you do that you end up with a lot of overripe fruit you can’t sell. In the early days we threw away 40 percent of what we grew. But that was stupid. Now we don’t throw anything away. We freeze it to make conserves and pastries. We dry it. And we’ve also figured out how to grow varieties that last through the entire summer.”
He grows dreamy as the names roll off his tongue. “Crimson Lady is the first peach we harvest. Then Gold Dust, Red Top, Flavorcrest, Suncrest, Zee Lady, Summer Lady, and O’Henry, which I think is the best grilling peach. But you have to wait until late in the season, until August, to get the best peach of all: Cal Red. And that,” he finishes triumphantly, “is the one you tasted that day in Berkeley.” (He notes that you should place orders for Cal Reds by early August.)
If you live in the Bay Area, you can buy Frog Hollow peaches at the farm or at Al’s shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. And if you live in Seattle, you can get them every summer at Metropolitan Market’s Peach-O-Rama, a project dreamed up by the late Jon Rowley, who was appalled by the notion that an entire generation had never tasted a perfect peach. The rest of us, however, have to order by mail.
A Frog Hollow peach is not an inexpensive pleasure (a three-pound box, which holds four to six peaches, can range from $31 to $45), but there is nothing on earth I would rather eat. Every summer when my box arrives, I grab a peach and run out to the lawn. I put down a blanket, sit on the grass, and take a bite. As the juice runs down my arms and the flavor courses through my body, I travel back in time. For me this is the taste of the past—and a reminder that there is joy in very simple things.
DON PENNY/STUDIO D, PROPS STYLED BY MIAKO KATOH ■