Story by Sanford D’Amato
Photography by Dominic Perri
I came late to the “fresh peach parade.” In my preteen years, my dad and I would arrive at his Milwaukee grocery store in the early morning, and I would grab a can of sliced cling peaches off the shelf and place it in the bottom of the dairy refrigerator. When our lunchtime rolled around, they were chilled to perfection. I would pluck out a small wedge and let the viscous sugar syrup slide off before indulging.
For many years, I thought that was all I needed to know about peaches—not that we didn’t have fresh peaches in season at the store. Their arrival was ushered in by the hottest days of the summer, late July to August. It was so hot that in the early afternoon, time would almost stand still. Not one customer was brave enough to leave the cooling breeze of their fan or air conditioner to venture outside to shop.
I would be half asleep behind the store’s counter, but the half that was awake had its eye on the reddish-orange pyramid stack of peaches that had been uncrated that morning. It didn’t matter that I had done this scene before; I would still rouse myself over and cut one up, take a bite and be completely disappointed as they were woody, slightly mealy and certainly less than flavorful.
For years, I was happily content through the summer to stick with the local strawberries, raspberries, plums and cherries. This was until about twenty years back when my wife, Angie, and I were traveling through the South on an early July barbecue quest. On our second day in Alabama, I came to a screeching halt at a roadside stand as the area was permeated with a fruit aroma that was foreign to me— it was sweet peaches. We bought a large bag and hopped back in the RV. As we inched back on the road, Angie handed me a particularly blushing specimen, and after the first bite, I had to pull back off to the side of the road because unctuous sticky peach liquor was dripping down my arm and the steering wheel was starting to slide. Actually, I had to just stop and revel in the most perfect peach I had ever had.
This scenario repeated daily as we drove through Georgia and South Carolina feeling like a couple of peach pits, enrobed by the intoxicating aroma of fresh peaches. I quickly realized that they have an elusive perfume and sweet tart flavor that screams summer more any other fruit. I was sad to leave, as I realized that in the Midwest, I would never again have that yearly access to tree-ripened peaches like I did for other fruit.
A few years later, while visiting the Pioneer Valley for the first time, our friends David and Lisa were showing us around when David stopped at a farmers’ market and picked up a bag of peaches. I wasn’t overly excited as I already had it in my head that we weren’t far enough south to be havin’ anything close to a killer peach. He handed me one from the bag and just as I was about to rattle off a polite, “Well, these aren’t too bad for Northern peaches,” I found myself immediately speechless, dripping and completely smitten!
Since we moved to the Valley, there have been many revelations in the fruit and vegetable world within a 5-mile radius of our Hatfield home—asparagus, corn, straw- and blueberries, cukes, etc.—and that’s just the summer. But the number one revelation? The peaches. The first fruit trees we planted upon moving to Hatfield eight years ago were peach—along with plum, cherry, apple and pear—which make us feel like we’re living in a slightly less-naked Garden of Eden. They say you can’t have it all—that depends on what you want!
Recipe: Grilled Peach Soup with Yogurt and Hazelnuts
Serves 6 to 8
2½ lb. peaches (plus 2 additional peaches sliced for garnish)
2 t. grapeseed oil
3½ c. dry white wine
1 c. plus 2 T. granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
1 (2-in.) cinnamon stick
2 star anise
1 bay leaf
¾ T. black peppercorns, crushed
Pinch of salt
1 c. good-quality plain yogurt for garnish
½ c. toasted and salted hazelnuts, cut in quarters
Light your grill, and let the coals get very hot.
Cut the 2½ lbs. of peaches in half. Remove the pits and toss with grapeseed oil. Grill, cut side down for 1 min., until gently charred. Remove from heat and chop coarsely.
Place the peaches, wine, sugar and vanilla bean in a 6-quart saucepan. Wrap the cinnamon, anise, bay leaf and peppercorns in a piece of cheesecloth, tie securely to make a sachet and place in the saucepan.
Bring the soup up to a light boil and let it boil for 2 min. Turn down to a low simmer, cover and simmer slowly for 1 hr. (try not to let the liquid reduce).
Remove the sachet and vanilla bean, then puree the mixture in a blender until smooth. Strain through a medium strainer, add a pinch of salt.
Chill and serve garnished with yogurt, fresh sliced peaches and toasted hazelnuts.
To toast hazelnuts: Toss the hazelnuts with ½ t. of olive oil and season with kosher salt. Toast in a 350° oven for 18 min., tossing every 5 min.
Sanford (Sandy) D’Amato is a James Beard Award–winning chef who teaches cooking classes at Good Stock Farm, his home in Hatfield, MA. He is the former chef/owner of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI, and the author of GOOD STOCK: Life on a Low Simmer, his memoir with recipes. Learn more about Sandy and Good Stock Farm cooking classes at GoodStockFarm.com