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Attaining peak peach: a user’s guide

If you have never eaten a peach so ripe and bursting that you felt compelled to stand over the kitchen sink, I feel sorry for you. There is a peach-shaped hole in your soul.

The good news is you still have a month to fill it. Here’s how: Go to a farmers market and buy a basket of peaches from the farmers who grew them.

Pay whatever they ask. It’ll be less than supermarket prices, and they can use it. Subzero February weather killed enough buds to cost some Western New York peach growers half their crop.

Give them your money, and say thank you for the gifts you are about to receive. Mother Nature taketh, but also giveth: the scorching drought made this year’s crop even sweeter than usual.

Take your prizes home and put them on the counter. Inspect each one. If its flesh yields under fingertip pressure and its fragrance fills your head with fruit-pie thoughts, it joins the “ready” group. The rest can wait.

Take the softest ready peach and head for the sink. Take a bite. If you’re not slurping before you’re all the way through, you can do better. Try another one.

When it’s right, you’ll know it. You will have attained peak peach. Then wipe your chin.

You have a month to make this happen, with local peaches available until the end of September. Saps, slugs and laggards will have to wait until next year. Because 10 months a year, all you can buy are imports, from Georgia, South Carolina or especially California.

To survive the journey, they’re picked before they’ve matured. For 85 percent of our waking days, all Western New Yorkers can get are juvenile peaches that can never measure up.

“They’re not going to develop that full flavor, because they pick them off the tree too early,” said Craig Kahlke, stone fruit expert with the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Lake Ontario Fruit Program. “They will ripen further, but they won’t develop full flavor, like peaches picked locally at the peak of ripeness.” In Western New York, meanwhile, drought conditions have resulted in “absolutely phenomenal” sweetness, this year, he said.

Ever bit into a great-looking peach that turned out to be disagreeably mealy? Proper peach shipping and storage is a finicky business. Fully ripe peaches can be refrigerated for a few days. But “certain varieties are prone to chilling injury,” Kahlke said. “If they’re stored between 37 and 54 degrees after they’re picked they can get that mealiness.”

Western New York’s peaches are the best we can get because they were grown by our neighbors. This fruit matures while still attached to the tree, as God (or the tree’s innate biological genius, as you prefer) intended. Until it’s picked and carefully carted to market by people hoping it’ll help pay their mortgage, tax bill and health insurance.

My peaches come from the North Tonawanda market, from farmers I trust, even though I don’t know their first names. (The surname is easy, it’s in big letters on the truck.)

For peak peach purchasing power, consider buying a basket of “seconds,” sorted out from the pristine ones because they have a bruise, are dangerously ripe, or have other flaws.

“I buy seconds, because they’re cheaper,” said my mother, a noted peach expert, to me anyway. “They might have bruises, but it doesn’t detract from their flavor, and I just trim them off. Plus they’re usually riper, ready to eat right away.” She paused. “It’s mostly because I’m cheap.”

What some see as flaws in seconds is also their beauty, she noted. “You gotta use ’em or lose ’em,” she said, “so that’s your excuse to have 10 at a time.”

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On the Web: Looking for local farmers markets that sell locally grown peaches? How about some recipes to make the best use of those peaches? Go to for the answers to both.

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