It's that time of year. When Bay Area markets are jumping with stone fruits. Names whimsical, actual and unpronounceable and downright silly fill signage over mysterious glowing orbs. People want to know, "What's the difference between a pluot and a plumcot, a nectarcot and an aprium? Why all the funny names? What happened to the straight up plum, apricot, nectarine and peach?"
The full answer is too wordy for this medium. But, truth be told, there are almost no fruits we eat out hand today which are their true selves in their original form. All stone fruits are hybrids of the bitter almond tree, and all have been developed by horticulturalists for hundreds of years to withstand certain weather conditions, soils and various interfering pests. And in the last one hundred years or so, farmers have been juggling/gambling with different trees in an attempt to provide Americans with what appears to be one fruit during the course of a season. The peach you eat in May is not the peach you eat in June or July. But the hope is that on each of these hot summer days, you can find, buy and eat a peach.
It's almost impossible to keep up with all the stone fruit hybrids once summer begins. They rush at us like stars in a meteor shower. Some varietals last a month, but many come and go within a week or even days! My favorite farm for stone fruit is Blossom Bluff. Ted and Fran Loewen grow dozens of varietals, oftentimes experimenting or sticking with more difficult trees and fruit to provide their customers with a delicious spectrum of complex, aromatic, texturally sensuous fruits.
It's been as big a surprise to me, as anyone else, that peaches and various plum-apricot hybrids are arriving at the farmers' market as early as this. It's May; still spring by the calendar! But here they all are, available for the picking, and in wide sweeping arrays and displays at Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market and local farmers' markets.
Unless a farmer has stayed loyal to calling these hybrids their proper names, what you buy here will be named something different there. As of yet there's little regulation to insure names stay consistent. Train your nose and mouth to recognize new varietals. Pick fruit that has a strong scent when you go in for the smell. All stone fruit can ripen off the tree. Unless your house is very hot or humid, ripen fruit further by setting fruit on its shoulders, stem side down, until, when pressed, flesh has a bit of give. If the fruit you buy is very ripe, be sure to refrigerate it immediately.
Early fruits will be smaller and higher in acid than their later cousins. Fruit whose color bleeds right down into the stem end will ripen sweeter than those whose color is yellow or green by the stem. Look for fruit with saturated color. The sun's blush is what determines sugar in stone fruit.
But remember, some of these varietals will be gone before you can decide if you'll like them! Buy a few of each as the season progresses and jot down the name on the placard as well as the name of the farm stand. These notes will help you get a head-start on next years stone fruit onslaught.
If you have an interest in the history of these quirky hybrids, Mr. Floyd Zaiger is the first person to learn about. He has contributed more to stone fruit hybridization than any other person to date.
Short Pieces on Floyd Zaiger:
And if you are a nerdy (budding) fruit historian (pun intended) like me, you'll enjoy words written by and about the infamous David Karp, Fruit Detective extraordinaire:
California Heartland . Org
John Seabrook from The New Yorker spends a few days with our man.
Smithsonian Magazine interview.