Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Peaches reign


Indiana growers pamper fragile fruit, harvesting them at peak ripeness

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The first peaches of the season — small and rosy with streaks of yellow sunshine — sit cradled in baskets on the concrete floor in the back of the market at Beiersdorfer Orchard near Guilford, Ind.

        The room is filled with the perfume of the fruit — a sweet, floral scent that has charmed for centuries, making some crave peach cobbler and peach ice cream, driving others to take a bite of a fresh peach that causes a stream of sticky juice to run down their chin.

[photo] The Beiersdorfer family (from left): son Russell, grandson Jeremy, Bill, Hilda, son Jerry.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's an unmistakable odor that also makes Bill Beiersdorfer itch a little. After picking peaches for most of his life, just smelling the fruit can make him feel the itchy fuzz on his arms.

        “The fuzz doesn't bother me as much as when I was younger,” says the 68-year-old Mr. Beiersdorfer. “And even if they do make you itch, it's worth it. Peaches are the queen of fruit.”

        Peaches rate royal status not just because of their incredible flavor and memorable scent, but because of their short season. Apples and pears are with us much of the year. But peaches — at least fresh, locally grown peaches — are available only for about two months in the summer.

        And once they're picked, the delicate, fragile peaches must be eaten or preserved quickly.

        Peaches were always in Mr. Beiersdorfer's future. He grew up on a farm in Peach Grove, a little hamlet outside of Cincinnati, now part of Colerain Township, that got its name because of a large peach population. As a boy, he loved to eat his mother's rich peach custard pie.

        In addition to peaches, his family raised apples and raspberries.

        When Mr. Beiersdorfer and his wife, Hilda, wanted to start a farm, escalating property prices forced them to look west to Indiana. In 1966, they bought 121 acres of rolling land about 10 miles above the Ohio River near Guilford. They planted hundreds of fruit trees, including 150 peach trees they brought from Peach Grove.

        Ironically, there are now no commercial peach producers in Peach Grove.

        The Beiersdorfers grow and sell mostly apples and cider, but they also harvest about 5,000 bushels of peaches a year. Their peach season begins in late June and lasts until early September.

        Beiersdorfer peaches have earned a reputation for being the best. People start calling in July, wanting to know if they can drop by the orchard to buy peaches while on their way to eat fried chicken at one of the nearby church dinners.

        A sign in Beiersdorfer's market reads: Do Not Handle the Peaches!

       

        “Oh, don't get me started,” Mrs. Beiersdorfer says, sounding exasperated.

PEACHES
Buying, storing, peeling peaches
    Look for intensely fragrant peaches that give slightly to palm pressure. Avoid fruit with soft spots or signs of greening. To ripen peaches, place them in a paper bag, pierce bag in several places and set aside at room temperature for a couple of days. (Adding an apple to bag will speed up ripening process.) Refrigerate ripe peaches in plastic bag for up to five days.
    Ripe peaches should peel easily, but to peel large amounts quickly, dip the fruit quickly into boiling water then rinse in cold water. Remove peel with fingers or paring knife.
Clingstone vs. freestone
    The flesh clings tenaciously to the pit of a “clingstone” peach, whereas the fruit is supposed to fall off easily from the pit of a “freestone” peach. But it doesn't always work out that way.
    “Sometimes, we'll tell people the early peaches are clingstone when they really are freestone,” says Bill Beiersdorfer. “That way if the fruit doesn't come off the way it should, maybe they won't complain. And if does, they'll be happy.”
Where to buy local peaches
    Beiersdorfer Orchard market (21874 Kuebel Road, Guilford, Ind.) is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday. Call ahead to check availability of peaches and other produce: (812) 487-2695.
    Directions: Take I-275 west to Lawrenceburg (Exit 16). Go 5 miles north on Ind. 1. Turn left on Yorkridge Road, and follow for 4 miles. Turn left at Kuebel Road. Look for sign.
    Locally grown peaches may be found at other markets, including weekly Tailgate Markets in several locations (251-0990) and at the Farmer's Shed at Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine on Saturday (findlaymarket.org).
    Here are more markets to check out. Remember to call ahead to check availability.
    • Barn 'n' Bunk Farm Market, Ohio 73 and Wayne-Madison Road, Trenton. (513) 988-9211.
    • Brown's Family Farm Market No. 2, 11620 Hamilton-Cleves Highway, Crosby Township. 738-0404.
    • Hidden Valley Fruit Farm, 5474 N. Ohio 48, Lebanon. (513) 932-1869.
    • Irons Fruit Farm, 1640 Stubbs Mill Road, Lebanon. 932-2853.
    • Pipkin's Fruit & Vegetable Market, 5035 Cooper Road, Montgomery. 791-3175.
    • Rouster's Apple House, 1986 Ohio 131, Milford. 625-5504.
    • Valley Orchard, 7029 River Road, Boone County. (859) 689-4992.
        Evidently, people love the peaches so much they want to fondle them before they buy them. The Beiersdorfers will tell you, though, there's no need to squeeze their fruit to test for ripeness. They pick and sell them only when the peaches are ready. The peaches are available at the Beiersdorfer Orchard market and a few other stores and markets in the Tristate. During the season, Mr. Beiersdorfer and his sons, Russell and Jerry, pick peaches twice a week, waiting and watching for the color on the backside of the peach — the side away from the sun — to turn golden.

        As far as Mr. Beiersdorfer is concerned, the only peach worth eating is a sweet, tree-ripened peach. He remembers once trying to sell his ripe peaches to a supermarket. The store's produce inspector splattered one of the soft peaches against a wall.

        “Then he told me: We can't sell fruit that bruises,” Mr. Beiersdorfer says. “The stores want peaches that are picked green.”

        That's when he knew he could only sell his peaches, harvested ripe — the way they should be.

        “You should be able to eat those on the road out of here,” he says, pointing to the baskets of peaches on the floor.

        The Chinese were the first to appreciate and cultivate peaches. In 1977 in Ch'ang-sha, China, archeologists found a bowl of peaches in the coffin of a mummified woman dating from the second century B.C. Today, the Chinese and the Japanese celebrate the blooming of the peach tree as a symbol of spring, renewal and growth.

        Peaches traveled across Persia before reaching ancient Rome, where they were called malum persicum or “Persian apple.” Later, the name became pesca in Italian, melocoon in Spanish, peche in French and “peach” in English.

        Although peaches grew in much of Europe, the fruit often was hard to find in markets because it didn't travel well. Spanish explorers introduced peaches to southern Indian tribes in the 16th century, and the fruit flourished as far north as Pennsylvania. Settlers in the Ohio River Valley supposedly were among the first to make peach brandy.

        Now, California dominates peach production, followed by Georgia and South Carolina. Relatively few peaches are grown in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

        The most challenging thing about growing peaches in this part of the country, says Mr. Beiersdorfer, is they bloom early — at least two weeks before apples. Depending on the bloom date — usually in mid-April — a late frost or freeze can destroy the blooms.

        “There's not much we can do about it either,” says Mr. Beiersdorfer, as he zips along in a golf cart between the neat rows of trees in his orchard.

        Growing peaches, like other crops, can be frustrating. But Mr. Beiersdorfer freely admits he loves it. One of the last chores he'll do before retiring and turning the farm over to his sons this fall will be spraying the peach trees.

        Other than the danger of a late freeze, the trees fare well in the Midwestern soil and climate. Mr. Beiersdorfer buys peach trees when they are only 3 feet tall, and they may begin producing fruit within three years. He still has several gnarly, fruit-bearing peach trees that he brought from Peach Grove 35 years ago.

        The Beiersdorfers grow about a dozen varieties of peaches — Red Haven, Harmony, Madison and others — and a temperamental white peach called Rarington Rose.

        “Those white peaches,” Mr. Beiersdorfer says, shaking his head. “One day they'll be green, the next they'll be ripe and the next day they'll be on the ground.”

        Despite all the talk about peach varieties, Mr. Beiersdorfer warns it's not the variety that counts when it comes to sweet peaches. It's the weather.

        “Peaches love sunshine,” he says. “Doesn't matter what the variety.”

        And he knows nothing satisfies the itch for sweet, midsummer fruit like sun-ripened peaches.

   



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