FOOD & DRINK
Summer is for Suncrests
California may grow hundreds of varieties of America’s favorite fuzzy fruit, but the rarest are worth the hunt
Few things herald the arrival of summer like the taste of a ripe, juicy peach. Here in California, we’re fortunate to be surrounded by family farms that grow some truly incredible peaches, from firm varieties that are great for grilling to drip-down-your-chin juice bombs that beg for immediate consumption. At Jordan Winery, peaches feature prominently in Executive Chef Todd Knoll’s summer menus, lending their sunset colors and succulence to salads, side dishes and desserts.
One of Chef Knoll’s favorite varieties is the suncrest, an heirloom peach with an orange-gold color and juicy yellow flesh, also known as freestone in California. The variety was immortalized by Central Valley farmer Mas Masumoto’s now-famous Los Angeles Times essay “Epitaph for a Peach,” in which he praised the suncrest as a peach that “exploded in your mouth and tickled you with the message, ’Aaah, this is a peach!’”
In 1987, when Masumoto’s essay was published, there were virtually no commercial buyers left for California’s suncrest peaches because of their short shelf life and cosmetic imperfections. But thanks to “Epitaph for a Peach,” interest in the variety was renewed, and family farmers like Masumoto decided not to rip out their orchards in favor of more profitable fruits.
They’re still rarely—if ever—seen in grocery stores, but suncrests can sometimes be found at farmers markets and through specialty fruit purveyors. Whenever they’re in season and available, Knoll gets them from one of his favorite suppliers, Kory Stewart of Napa Wild. “His fruit is always beautifully fragrant and ripe,” Knoll says, “harvested at just the right day, if not moment.”
When scouting for peaches, Stewart says, “I look for fruit that feels heavy for its size, and I look for great varieties,” like the suncrest.
Stewart spent several years as a chef at Hotel Vitale in San Francisco, and developed close relationships with vendors at the nearby Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The experience inspired him to start a business, sourcing fruit from local farms for Bay Area restaurants and wineries. Today some of Napa Wild’s most notable restaurant clients include Seven Hills in San Francisco, Morimoto and La Toque in Napa, and SingleThread and Valette in Healdsburg.
“I only want exceptional fruit, so I drive out to the farms and taste what they’re growing,” he says. Stewart buys what he likes, then sends an email to his client list each week to let them know what’s available.
Stewart sources suncrest peaches from K&J Orchards in Winters, about 30 miles west of Sacramento. The 100-acre farm was founded in 1982 by James Beutel, a former horticulture professor specializing in fruit cultivation, and his wife Kalayada Ammatya. The operation is now run by the couple and their two daughters.
Knoll loves all kinds of peaches for both eating and cooking, but he especially appreciates suncrest’s balanced sweetness. “I want good acidity,” he says. “At the peak of ripeness the sugar is right there with the acid, and that’s what is most amazing about this peach.”
At farmers markets, Knoll seeks out fruit that is slightly firm with a little bit of give, so he can let the peaches finish ripening on the kitchen counter. Sugars in peaches can triple in just a few days, so it’s important to check them daily. “Don’t put peaches in the refrigerator unless they are becoming too ripe,” he says. “A neglected peach will overripen quickly, like the elusive perfect pear. We are trying to capture the perfect moment.”
Along with simply devouring them on their own, Knoll incorporates peaches into a variety of dishes at Jordan. One of his summer favorites is a salad combining peaches with grilled corn, haricots verts, roasted hazelnuts and baby arugula, tossed with a simple dressing of sherry vinegar, fresh lemon, mustard, thyme and shallots —an excellent match for a chilled glass of Jordan Chardonnay.
He also uses peaches to accent meat dishes. A sweet and savory peach glaze, for example, brings out the natural sweetness in pork. Peaches also make a lovely accompaniment when glazed alongside carrots in a coffee kombucha syrup, accented with pickled mustard seed and pink peppercorns.
“The interplay of sweetness, aroma and flavor in the peaches adds favor and dimension to the plate,” Knoll says. “Their applications go far beyond desserts.”