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SUMMERTIME IS PEACH TIME

June 24, 2017

Last week Clare and I purchased the first peaches of the season. The peaches were June Gold, a cling variety grown in Spartanburg County. Sun-kissed peaches are delicious and nutritious, good tasting and good for you. A tree-ripened peach is soul food.

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

The peach is the state fruit of South Carolina and Georgia. Georgia is home to baseball player Ty Cobb, nicknamed the Georgia Peach. Though Georgia is known as the Peach State, South Carolina produces more peaches than any other Southern state. No matter which corner of the Palmetto State you visit, you’ll find roadside stands selling peaches in summer.

Travel across the Upstate, and you’ll see green hills covered with peach orchards. Abbott Farms, Belue Farms, Cash Farms, Cooley Farms, Cotton Hope Peach Farm, Fisher Orchards, Hood Farms, Gramling Farms, Lemmons Farms, McDowell Farms, Peach Country, Perdeaux Fruit Farm, and Ragan Orchards all suffered from a mid-March frost this year. Usually a dip in the thermometer to a few degrees below freezing will serve to thin the crop. However, in 2017, following several weeks of warmer than normal weather, the temperature plunged to nineteen degrees. I spoke with James Cooley on Wednesday about this year’s harvest. He reports that the extent of the damage to the peach crop is unknown, but he does expect to have plenty of peaches.

Peach cobbler, peach pie, and peach ice cream will abound!

The South Carolina Peach Festival will be held in Cherokee County July 7 – July 22, 2017. From an inauspicious weekend event in 1977 to this year’s fortieth anniversary extravaganza, the Peach Festival has become the premier summer event in the Upstate.

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, is located along Interstate 85. It serves as the gateway to the town of Gaffney.

In 1989, the South Carolina Peach Festival broke the Guinness world record for having the most guitarists playing and vocalists singing the same song, “Louie, Louie.” The event was broadcast on national television.

This two-week-long event 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 a favorite stopping place. Strawberry Hill features not only ripe red berries in spring, but also blushing peaches in summer. The restaurant serves a hearty breakfast, a delicious lunch, and hand-dipped ice cream. The stylized peach shed features fresh produce most of the year.

James Cooley is a third-generation peach farmer. He won recognition in 2013 as the South Carolina Farmer of the Year and went on to be awarded the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year in October of 2013. Cooley 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.

Along with cherries, plums, and apricots, peaches are stone fruits. The fuzzy fruit comes in many varieties of either yellow or white flesh. My favorite varieties are the yellow freestones, O’Henry and Monroe, and the white Georgia Belle.

The nectarine, a non-fuzzy cousin, is also a southern favorite. Clare prefers the Spartanburg County-grown yellow nectarines.

The scientific name persica, along with the word peach, 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. Peaches were mentioned in Chinese documents as far back as the tenth century B.C. They were a favored fruit of the emperors.

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, United States farmers 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 grew up enjoying Upstate peaches. My mother-in-law made peach jam that was the perfect companion to her melt-in-your-mouth biscuits. My grandmother and my mother made the best peach cobbler in the world. Though their original recipe probably was slightly different, the one below is close.

 

PEACH COBBLER

INGREDIENTS

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

1/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons cornstarch

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

 

MIX TOGETHER:

3 tablespoons white sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

 

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).

In a large bowl, combine peaches, 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice, and cornstarch. Toss to coat evenly, and pour into a 2-quart baking dish. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine flour, 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Blend in butter with a pastry blender, until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in water until just combined.

Remove peaches from oven, and drop spoonfuls of batter mixture over them. Sprinkle entire cobbler with the sugar and cinnamon mixture. Bake until topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

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 running down your own double chin.

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