As much as we enjoy peaches today, you may be surprised to learn that they have quite an ancient—make that very ancient—history.
In 2010 a road crew near the North Terminal Bus Station in Kunming, central Yunnan Province, southwestern China, unearthed a strange find in the strata of a rock outcrop from the late Pliocene Ciying Formation. A team of paleontologists led by Dr. Tao Su of Xishuangbanna Tropical Garden and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology identified the objects as eight fossilized peach endocarps or pits. They realized the discovery as a new species of the genus Prunus and named the pits P. kunmingensis. The endocarps were dated back 2.5 million years.
Publishing their findings in the November 26, 2015 issue of journal Scientific Reports, Dr. Su and his team reported that their discovery rewrote recorded history, noting that “…the word ‘peach’ has long appeared in Chinese literature, e.g., the books Shi-Jing (1,100 – 600 BC) and Shi-Ji (1st century BC).” With their finding, a much more dramatic interpretation of the origins of the fruit emerged. According to the team’s report:
These fossils show that China has been a critical region for peach evolution since long before human presence, much less agriculture. Peaches evolved their modern morphology under natural selection, presumably involving large, frugivorous mammals such as primates. Much later, peach size and variety increased through domestication and breeding.
Not only is the peach an ancient fruit, it is also peripatetic. From China the trade routes brought the peach to Turkey and Iran (Persia), then North Africa and Europe. The fruit was introduced to the New World in the mid-1500s by the French along the Gulf coast near Mobile, Alabama, and subsequently by the Spanish around St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast. The peach tree was intended as a “self-sustaining, agricultural, fruit tree product to feed the colonists.” The Native Americans in turn carried the seeds to tribes in the interior territories, and the trees proliferated. Indeed, they were so abundant that for years they were thought to be indigenous to the United States.
For centuries the peach has found popularity because of its flavor, variety of types, abundant growth and nutritious qualities. In fact, the peach has copious nutrients, including Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, as well as the minerals calcium, phosphorus, iron, and potassium.
Unfortunately, while the peach has evolved over the centuries, “progress” in production has had dubious effects:
Peach trees grown in the United States differ greatly from the aggressive, disease resistant, tasty, aromatic fruits grown by the early Americans. Over the centuries, the immune qualities of the peach trees to insects and diseases have been bred out by hybridizers, and these qualities have been replaced by inferior genes that make it difficult to buy a good flavorful peach at the store.
In addition, food production relies on timing the ripening of goods from the field to store shelves, which is a challenge since much produce comes from great distances. These calculations can make the difference between a profit or a bust (and containers of rotting food) for independent producers and agribusiness alike. Additives and genetic engineering are geared to maximizing preservation potential, as is producing varieties of produce based upon their durability. All this determines what is available in our stores. Unfortunately, these also affect how produce tastes, often providing appeal to the eye but a less than satisfying one to the taste bud.
If you’re a peach-lover who won’t be satisfied with commodified blandness, there are alternatives. Local orchards and farms still produce peaches with authentic taste, and some frozen forms may retain their flavor as well. There are also more organic products and food stores cropping up. With some intrepid exploration, you can rediscover the peach that has truly been a fruit for the ages.
Peach Almond Cake
Recipe courtesy of http://hungryrabbit.com/2015/08/peach-almond-cake/
- 1-3/4 cups (8-3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 cup (7 ounces) plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar, divided
- 7 ounces almond paste, grated
- 8 tablespoons (4 ounces/1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1-1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup canned coconut milk
- 3 firm but ripe peaches, pitted and thinly sliced
- Apricot Rum Glaze (recipe to follow)
- 1/4 cup apricot jelly
- 1 tablespoon rum
- 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350℉. Generously buttered and flour a 10-inch fluted quiche pan or 9-inch cake pan, set aside.
- Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in medium bowl to combine; set aside. In standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat sugar and almond paste at medium-low speed until combined. Add butter and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes; using rubber spatula, scrape down bowl.
- Reduce speed to medium, add vanilla and eggs, one at a time, beat until incorporated. Reduce speed to medium-low and add flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with coconut, milk end with flour mixture. Beat until just combined. Remove bowl from mixer and stir with rubber spatula to finish. Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top with small off-set spatula.
- Arrange the peach slices, overlapping slightly, on top of the batter in a circular pattern (you might not need all the slices) and sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons of sugar. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 50-60 minutes. Cool on rack for 20 minutes before glazing
- Combine apricot jelly and rum in a small saucepan and warm mixture until loose and syrupy. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla until combined. Brush glaze over the top of peaches and cake. Let set for 15 minute before serving