Peaches and brown paper are forever linked in my mind, the rustle and crumple of the bag as I withdrew the fruit, its downy skin against mine, the slight indentation my thumb made and when I dug in feeling the juice drip down my arm.
It was the day I didn’t buy nectarines, the contessa’s favourite. Why she preferred them, I couldn’t fathom. Their baldness never appealed, they were flinty and hard to look at. So I went for peaches instead. That was over twenty years ago in Venice and I can still remember the stallholder’s look as I handed him the note the following day, telling him what I couldn’t. That it must be nectarines you give the girl and not peaches. Pesca noce. He was weary, surrounded by clumps of basil and buckets of artichoke hearts floating in water. A wave of peaches and nectarines rose up behind him.
But it was that first peach I remember most. It was warm and tender, baked by the sun. The nude pinky-orange flesh caved, the tiny fibres clung to the stone, a lake of juice pooled in my mouth. I remember wanting to eat it out of sight. Go somewhere secluded. It would be something to deny on arrival, with suspiciously sticky hands.
I will always go for warmth and not cold. Peach ice cream I can take or leave. It gets lost – it could be anything pretty and fragrant-smelling. A peach is itself more when baked, poached or simply wondrously ripe and filled with the coldest of blue cheeses. I understand the puree thing, but then I miss the shape; those delicate mounds in a tart, perfect circles like cobblestones running down a street. I know what I’m getting and that’s part of the pleasure. I can imagine it before it arrives. I once saw a lady peel and wash a tomato with its own skin. I like doing this to ripe fruit and it works well with peaches. I like the skin, but I want the flesh, so I keep peeling. A very ripe peach will slip off its skin almost in one. The hussy.
Peaches are not what they were. Gone are the days when a peach would be presented in a black velvet box at the end of a meal in French restaurants. Perhaps we no longer know what a peach could be. They are too over-extended, under-ripe, hard, watery, wooden. Historically, they were grown in vineyards and would come to ripeness at vintage time. The trees would then renew themselves from the fallen stones.
A few of these places still exist. It’s best to be on the side of the grower, and trust the smaller producers. They stress the peaches, breaking them in like dizzy mares. It seems cruel, feudal at first, but the rewards are huge. In California, a few good men are wresting the peach back from the hand of commerce. The trees are small and watered abstemiously in nutrient-poor soil. Peas, barley, wheat and wild oats grow like weeds around them. All this stress concentrates the flavour. I think the peach likes it that way.
To pick a good peach: trust your nose. A ripe peach has a rich, musky sweetness. Although it will continue to ripen after picking, getting softer and juicier, it won’t get any sweeter. A perfect peach – a mature peach – is one that has hung on the branch long enough for the sugar to develop. You will know it when you smell it. It will have made its final swell. When it comes to colour, forget red – this is a genetic variation, though we are all seduced.
Instead, it’s the quality of the background colour that’s important: a yellowy-orange cast signifies maturity, so pick that one. Farmers’ markets are always the best bet. Santa Monica has some orchard kings. This is the very beginning of the peach season in California, so I’m being a bit previous, but there are still some early gems around, particularly the flat peaches, Saturn, Donut and Saucer. The season proper starts mid June and will extend to August and even September. Often one variety will only last a week or so. Best to roll with it.
Peach and Amaretti Tarte Tatin
Adapted from Tamasin Day-Lewis, The Art of the Tart
This is a good one if you have slightly below par peaches, or they’re not as ripe as you’d like. I’ve always been a bit afraid of things I have to flip over at the last minute, but this is fairly straightforward, if you don’t mind tatty pastry, ragged peaches, and half the tart being left behind in the pan. Personally, I like a bit of rustic, which is just as well. Also, it’s lovely cold.
For the dough
8 amaretti biscuits
1½ cups (210g) plain flour
6 tbs (85g) cold butter, cubed
2-3 tbs iced water
For the top
Juice of 1 lemon
6 tbs (85g) sugar
4 tbs (55g) butter
To make the dough, whizz the amaretti biscuits in a coffee grinder to a fine-ish dust. Add to a bowl with the sifted flour and butter and, if using your hands, work quickly to amalgamate. If using a food processor, process briefly until the mixture comes together. In both cases, you need to add 2-3 tbs (maybe a little more) of iced water for the dough to cohere. Chill for at least half an hour.
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface ½ inch wider than the circumference of the pan you’ll be using. I use a 10-inch pan whose handle doesn’t melt in the oven. Set the pastry shell to one side.
Scald the peaches in boiling water for 30 seconds and slip off their skins. Sprinkle with lemon juice to prevent discolouration.
Now warm the sugar in the pan until it is a deep, dark brown. This will take a while and I suggest keeping the heat on very low at first so the sugar doesn’t become too bitter or burnt. Don’t stir, but move the pan around to prevent scorching. Wait for the sugar to become totally liquid, then remove from the heat and dot with half the butter. Put half a peach in the middle of the sugar mixture, cut side up. This is where it all starts to go a bit Raggedy Ann – peaches that have been scalded and skinned are slippery buggers. It’s best to accept the tart will not look as clean as you’d like. Quarter the peaches and lay them next to one another in a tightly packed wheel. Arrange the remaining quarters in the inside wheel. Dot with the remaining butter and put the pan back on the heat for a few minutes to gently begin the cooking.
Remove from the heat, cover with the pastry (be prepared for it to break and for a lot of swearing to ensue), tuck it inside the pan edge, and bake for about 35 minutes – it should look lightly browned and the caramel will be bubbling deliciously. Remove from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes before inverting onto a plate. Good luck. Serve with vanilla ice cream or crème fraîche.