History: Peaches are native to China, and came to Europe via Persia around 300 BCE. For this reason, peaches were once called Persian apples. The Ancient Romans ate peaches, mostly as a dessert. Apicius contained a recipe for pickled peaches:
To Keep Hard-skinned Peaches
Duracina persica ut diu durent
Select the best and put them in brine. The next day remove them and rinsing them carefully set them in place in a vessel, sprinkle with salt and satury and immerse in vinegar.
Varieties: Peaches have hundreds of varieties, varying in color (white with a pink blush to yellow with a red blush) and flavor. In general, a peach will either be freestone (pit frees easily from the flesh), or clingstone (pit clings to the flesh and is hard to remove). Freestones are generally found in markets, while clingstones are more often used commercially.
Season: Peaches are available from May to October in most regions. May through August is peak season in California.
Choosing: Look for a fragrant fruit that gives slightly to palm pressure. Peaches bruise easily so be careful when handling - you don't want to ruin it for another customer - and look over it thoroughly for soft spots. Avoid peaches with greening. Look for an orange cast instead. The best way to tell is the smell. Give it a sniff - if it smells delicious, then it is!
For Locavores: If you're trying to eat local, you have a better than 50/50 chance. 29 states harvest significant amounts of peaches. The largest producer is California, which grows more than half of the peaches in the U.S., followed by Georgia and South Carolina.
Ripening and Storage: To ripen an underripe peach, place it in a paper bag that's been pierced and let it sit at room temperature. Adding an apple to the bag will make it ripen even faster. To store, refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to five days. Bring to room temperature before eating. Be careful not to store below 45ºF. Storing a peach at such low temperatures impairs pectin breakdown in the fruit and can cause mealy flesh, which is unpleasant.
Preparation: If you like your peaches peeled, blanch it for 30 seconds and then plunge into ice cold water. To remove pits, cut in half lengthwise, following the cleft. Rotate the halves in opposite directions like opening a jar, until the pit comes free. If cutting peaches in advance of using, be aware that they can brown when exposed to air. Put some sugar on them to delay this reaction.
Nutrition: Peaches contain vitamin A and C.
Peach Melba: Peach Melba is the classic peach dessert, created in the 1800s by the famous French chef Escoffier, for the Australian opera diva, Dame Nellie Melba. To make it, poach two peach halves in syrup and let them cool. Then place each half hollow side down on a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and top with a raspberry sauce and sometimes whipped cream and almonds.
Peaches are best served simply when they are in season. They are good enough eaten by themselves, or as a compliment to a shortbread or poundcake. Or, you can marinate sliced peaches in a bit of wine, or dribble a small amount of aged balsamic vinegar on them.
Since peaches also come in season in the summer, they make a wonderful gelato, sorbet, or ice cream ingredient.
SOURCES: The Food Lover's Companion, On Food and Cooking (Harold McGee), How to Pick a Peach (Russ Parsons)