Gourmet Files Vasundhara Chauhan

Life’s just peachy

Juicy wonder. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma  

Greek philosopher Theophrastus (370 B.C. to 288 B.C.) was the first writer who mentioned the peach in classical antiquity. Though the original home of the peach is China, where they still have wild peaches, cultivation spread westwards, via Kashmir, to Persia. It came to be believed that Persia was the home, and so the fruit was named Amygdalus persica. Later Virgil, Pliny, Chaucer, O’Henry and Zola, all wrote of it, adding to its celebration in literature. Though lesser known than Eliot’s “…Do I dare to eat a peach?”, D.H. Lawrence wrote sensuously of it too. Still life paintings almost always included one — maybe the downy, velvet skin and flaming sunset hues gave a richness of both texture and colour. But Picasso said, “One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite — that particular peach is but a detail.”

There are two problems with peaches. To be at their best, they must ripen on the tree. But since most of us live long miles from orchards, those we buy must have been picked long before they ripened and they make poor eating. Sometimes they transit through cold stores, lose their drippy juiciness, becoming almost mealy. If they’ve suffered hail, they’re bruised; if they’ve been stabbed en route by stems and pine needles used in the packing, they’re wounded; so if one manages to find good, plump, juicy, ripe, unblemished fruit, one must buy and eat them at once. I agree with Ruth Reichl: “If you start with a great peach, there’s nothing you’re ever going to do that’s going to make it any better than when it comes off the tree.” I would love to do just that, but how many peaches can I eat in a week? The season is so brief.

And so we eat some au naturel, we bake some in cobblers and crisps, we make a jam and then time’s up. So we preserve them. “Inside the peach, there is a stone.” Margaret Atwood in Alias Grace probably meant something deep and philosophical with those words, but for me that is a practical concern. And so, when I try to extend the season, I try to remove the stone while keeping the fruit smooth and clean.

In 1893, Escoffier invented the most famous peach dish in the world, Peach Melba, for Dame Nellie Melba. It is a cold dessert of lightly stewed peaches coated in lemon juice and sprinkled with sugar, served with a sauce of fresh raspberries and vanilla ice cream, preferably homemade, with real vanilla beans. A lesser known story is of Madame Juliette Récamier, a socialite, the wife of a Parisian banker, renowned for her beauty and warmth. She was much admired and painted, by François Gérard and others, and some works hang in the Louvre. Madame Récamier fell ill, refused food, and her death was feared imminent. But she recovered after she was tempted to eat a dish of peaches in syrup and cream.

PEACH HALVES IN SYRUP

8 large ripe peaches

1/2 cup sugar

Boil a large pan of water. Nick peaches on one end with tip of knife and immerse in boiling water for 10 seconds. Drain and cool until easy to handle. Remove peel. Cut around the peach vertically, twist and separate halves. Remove stone with tip of knife. Make thin sugar syrup by boiling 1 litre water with sugar. Remove from heat as soon as sugar is dissolved. Transfer syrup to shallow plastic container. Place blanched peaches in warm syrup. Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to two to three months.

FRESH PEACH CRISP

About six servings

1 kg ripe peaches (about eight)

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon powder

1/2 cup soft butter

Light cream

Preheat oven to 200º C. Lightly grease an 8x8x2 baking dish. Wash peaches, peel. Cut in halves and remove pits. Slice peaches and place in baking dish. Sift flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon into medium-sized bowl. Using two knives, cut butter into flour mixture until mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Sprinkle evenly over peaches. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, until topping is golden and peaches are tender. Serve warm, with cream.

vasundharachauhan9@gmail.com

Vasundhara Chauhan is a food writer based in Delhi.


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