On the Side | Spring disaster avoided, the time's ripe.

Golden days dawn for Jersey peach growers

Posted: August 02, 2007

PRINCETON - At Terhune Orchards, which straddle rural Cold Soil Road here, the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council was starting off the season last week with a tour of the early crop, samples of peach dishes, and remarks that went on - don't they always? - a little longer than the attention span of the assembled media.

The good news, it seems, is that New Jersey dodged a bullet back around Easter, when a late freeze took the starch out of the storied peachlands of Georgia and its neighbors: South Carolina lost a staggering 90 percent of its crop, millions of boxes of peaches.

Not only was New Jersey's crop (now projected to be the largest in the East) spared, but it has apparently prospered. May's sunny days and roughly an inch of rainfall a week have conspired to "make for good eating peaches," said the council's Phil Neary, " . . . even on the front end."

It is hard to imagine him saying anything much different. But the "front end" business is telling. Typically, you get peaches by now. But you don't always get flavor. One that had softened up a bit at Terhune indeed had a peachiness, though the sweet wasn't quite yet balancing the still-assertive tart.

Of course, even local peaches aren't picked 100 percent ripe. If they were, they'd be mush in no time. They are picked "mature" (sometimes in three or four forays to the same tree, said Terhune's co-owner, Gary Mount) when the background color, on the opposite side of that reddish blush, turns from green to yellow, signifying the sugar has peaked.

In How to Pick a Peach, food writer Russ Parsons adds a detail: Look for a yellow that leans toward a golden, almost orange, cast, and you'll have a peach that matured fully on the tree, achieving its sugar high, even if it still needs a day or two of ripening to unleash its juices.

"People who love peaches have particular sensibility," Gary's wife, Pam Mount, has found. "They don't mind laying them out on the counter, turning them over, letting them soften. Apple people eat [their apples] on the way out the drive."

In the shade of the picnic grove, chefs had set up shop. Milford Oyster House offered a brave scallop seviche with sliced peaches and lime juice. Princeton's Mediterra served young Griggstown Farm chicken with simmered peaches and smoked paprika (delicious), and a spiced peach gazpacho that tasted oddly like Mott's applesauce. The Frog and the Peach (perfect!) from New Brunswick grilled skewered cubes of peach and halloumi cheese and topped them with crisped prosciutto, a trick for your next dinner party.

Nearby, Rutgers peach breeder Joseph Goffreda offered a taste of things to come - new varieties including the early-season Desiree, which ripened in a North Jersey test plot on July 9, ten days earlier than the reigning champ, Sentry. "It's the earliest peach with full-season flavor," he opined.

Already there are 30 varieties of "Jersey peach." And the holy-grail quest - for winter hardiness and spring-frost tolerance that doesn't extinguish flavor - goes on behind the scenes while on its face, as Pam Mount put it, Terhune Farms tries to "keep an Old MacDonald's look."

It was certainly succeeding last week, the asparagus fields gone to feathery ferns; red, pick-your-own wagons being pulled by mothers and kids; the blackberry patches labeled with hand-painted signs out of a storybook farm.

Deeper in South Jersey, the sprawling peach juggernauts were cranking up, the un-scenic fields blushing, the packing houses starting to hum.

They are not as pretty a picture as the grassy-aisled groves here, but who could blame the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council - on the cusp of August and feeling flush at the dawn of the state's 400th season - for picking a background that leaned heavily toward golden.

Terhune Orchards

330 Cold Soil Road

Princeton, N.J. 609-924-2310


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

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