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Peaches in the Upstate

August 22, 2011

In early June, Clare and I purchased the first peaches of the season, a cling variety grown in Spartanburg County. Last week, we were given a basket filled with large O’Henrys, one of the best South Carolina varieties. Sun kissed peaches are delicious and nutritious, good tasting and good for you. A tree-ripened peach is soul food.

The first bite of a fresh peach tastes exactly the way summertime is supposed to, sweet and flavorful with juice dribbling down your chin. In my case, a double chin.

The peach is the state fruit of South Carolina and Georgia. Georgia is known as the Peach State. South Carolina produces more peaches than any other Southern state. Whatever corner of the Palmetto State you visit, you’ll find roadside stands selling peaches.

Across the Upstate, you see green hills covered with peach orchards. Abbott Farms, Belue Farms, Cash Farms, Cooley Farms, Cotton Hope Peach Farm, Fisher Orchards, Gramling Farms, Peach Country, and Ragan Orchards all suffer from an occasional spring freeze. Some years the peach crop has been greatly diminished by weather-related causes. This year there are plenty of peaches!

The South Carolina Peach Festival in Cherokee County has become the premier summer event in the Upstate. From an inauspicious weekend in 1977, the Peach Festival has grown into the current extravaganza. The Festival first gained national attention in 1978 when volunteers prepared the World’s Largest Peach Pie.

In 1981, the largest of all peaches was unveiled. A one million-gallon water tank, the Peachoid, located along Interstate 85, serves as the gateway to South Carolina.

The South Carolina Peach Festival salutes the peach industry with concerts, sporting events, a parade, truck and tractor pulls, and delicious peach desserts.

At Cooley Springs on Highway 11, travelers find an oasis. Strawberry Hill offers, not only ripe red berries in spring, but also blushing peaches in summer. The stylized peach shed features fresh produce most of the year. When Clare and I are cruising, Cooley Springs is a favorite stop.

James Cooley, a third generation peach farmer, has an establishment that is the epitome of Southern hospitality. Visitors are greeted as if they were friends and neighbors. While members of the Cooley clan and other employees wait on retail customers, James will probably be on his forklift, loading pallets of peaches on tractor trailers headed for markets across the southeast.

The peach is a fuzzy fruit that comes in many varieties of either yellow or white flesh. The nectarine is a non-fuzzy cousin.

The scientific name persica derives from an early European belief that peaches were native to Persia. The consensus now is that they originated in China, and were introduced to Persia and the Mediterranean region along the Silk Road.

The peach was brought to America by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. In Queen Victoria’s day, many a meal was made complete with a fresh peach presented in a cotton napkin.

Although Thomas Jefferson had peach trees at Monticello, farmers in the United States did not begin commercial production until the nineteenth century. Today, peaches are second only to apples as the largest commercial fruit crop in the States.

I was reared enjoying Upstate peaches. My mother-in-law made peach jam that was the perfect companion to her melt-in-your-mouth, made-from-scratch, biscuits. My mother made the best peach cobbler in the world. Though her original recipe probably was slightly different, the one below is close.

MAMA’S PEACH COBBLER


The Filling

8 fresh peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced into thin wedges

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon almond extract

1/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 teaspoons cornstarch

 

The Crust

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

1/4 cup boiling water

 

The Sprinkle Topping

3 tablespoons white sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. For the filling, grease a 2 quart baking dish with butter. Combine peaches, almond extract, and lemon juice into the greased dish. Try to retain as much of the peach juice as possible.
  3. In a bowl mix 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, and 2 teaspoons of cornstarch.
  4. Pour into the baking dish stirring to coat peach slices evenly.
  5. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.
  6. For the crust, in a large bowl mix 1 cup flour, 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Blend in butter pieces with your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in water until just combined.
  7. Remove peaches from oven, and drop spoonsful of batter mixture over the hot peaches.
  8. For the topping, in a small separate bowl mix together 3 tablespoons white sugar and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  9. Sprinkle over the top of the entire cobbler the sugar and cinnamon mixture.
  10. Pop the baking dish back into the oven.
  11. Bake until topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes.
  12. Serve this peach cobbler warm with vanilla ice cream.

I’ll make you a promise. If you eat enough of this peach cobbler, you, too, can have peach juice dribbling down your own double chin.

Kirk H. Neely
©  June 2011
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