Bites of History: Presenting the gloriously fragrant peach

Does any fruit smell more like summer than ripe peaches? This highly fragrant member of the rose family ranges in color from deep yellow to white, and at this time of year, the more industrious among us like to make jam out of mildly flavored clingstones, the peach with the flesh that sticks to the stone. Most of the rest of us are happy to just stand over the sink munching a juicy freestone, the peach with the stone that readily twists away from the fruit. Then, of course, there are the fans of fresh nectarines, which are basically fuzz-free peaches. (Nope, there’s no truth to the rumor that a nectarine is a cross between a peach and a plum.)

Ancient writings tell us that peaches were growing domestically in China as early as 2000 B.C. The Chinese were so taken with the fruit’s taste and aroma that they considered the peach tree the tree of life, with many believing it was powerful enough to confer immortality.

Our friends to the east also believed peach wood protected against evil, and peach-wood wands were, therefore, used in Chinese exorcisms.

From China, peach cultivation followed the Silk Road, a 2,500-mile trade route that stretched from East Asia west to ancient Persia, present-day Iran. Peaches then went to Greece and reached Rome around the first century. Believing the fruit had originated in Persia, the Romans called it the “Persian apple.” Around 20 B.C., peaches in Rome were apparently highly prized, with a single peach selling for the modern equivalent of $4.50.

Throughout Europe, peaches quickly became a treasured treat, with the French giving the peach the provocative name “Venus nipple,” and the Victorian Age British serving fresh peaches wrapped in frilly cotton napkins as an upscale dessert.

During the age of exploration, just about every European adventurer seems to have traveled with peach trees. Columbus brought peach trees to America on his second and third voyages.

Spanish explorers brought peaches to Mexico, South America and St. Augustine, Florida. The English took them to Jamestown and Massachusetts, and the fruit arrived along the Gulf Coast and in Louisiana with the French.

Native Americans took a particular liking to this new plant, and early tribes are credited with spreading the peach tree across America. Apparently, many were planted in the South. Accounts show that when European colonists started arriving, they found numerous peach trees, which were erroneously thought to be wild and indigenous to the area.

Around south Louisiana, it’s easy to find home-grown peaches at fresh markets, farmers markets and at roadside retail stands.

The best-tasting peaches are, of course, the kind you grow yourself, which, in our subtropical climate, used to be a hit-or-miss endeavor. Pests and diseases abound.

Then there’s that chill hour thing, the peach tree’s requirement for a certain annual number of hours of freezing temperatures. But thanks to extensive research programs, Lower South-area nurseries now sell low-chill and disease-resistant peach trees that, when cared for properly, produce excellent fruit.

Historically, however, peaches in Louisiana have grown best in the relatively chillier northeastern parishes of West Carroll, Allen, Red River and Lincoln. The city of Ruston, in particular, is renowned for its spectacularly fragrant peaches.

And this weekend, the quiet north Louisiana town is celebrating its famed produce with the state’s oldest agricultural festival, the Louisiana Peach Festival. So, if you’re a fan of anything made with peaches, it’s worth the trip. Once there, you’ll be close to the largest peach orchard in the state, Mitcham Farms, home to 12,000 trees. And while moseying along the festival’s decked-out streets, you’ll be able to indulge in delicacies such as fresh-made peach ice cream and cobbler.

And, best of all, you’ll be surrounded by that heavenly smell.

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’ title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.

Sources: USDA’s “Crop Profile for Peaches in Louisiana,” ipmcenters.org; baderpeaches.com; thenibble.com; Visual Food Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1996); Simoons, Frederick, Food in China (1991)