Picking perfect peaches
Sugary goodness comes to those who wait
When Sunset magazine honored Manas Ranch as growing the “best peaches in the West” in the mid-1990s, it might have sounded like a phrase of fluff to the fruit-savvy skeptic, always wary of overly pretty peaches that bear no sugar or flavor at all.
But Fred Manas, owner of the 30-year-old, 60-acre ranch in Esparto, knows a good peach when he tastes one and certainly doesn’t overrate the prettiness of his own peaches. He welcomes unshapely or mottled fruits on his branches, well aware that a peach’s true virtues are in its taste. Manas says many big growers and brokers disregard flavor as secondary to blemish-free skins—a marketing mindset that may have justly and logically killed the local industry, leaving him as one of the only remaining farms.
Manas, who says he now runs the biggest peach outfits in the county, recalls the 1950s, when his hometown of Winters was enveloped by peach and apricot groves. “That’s all it was for miles,” he says. “Now it’s all almonds and walnuts.”
Manas says he lived through the peach pullout—and probably even profited because of it—by maintaining control of his fruit. He and several staff do the picking, and not until the fruits are fully ripe. Manas takes sugar measurements with a refractometer and never begins working a tree until its fruits have reached 14 brix, he promises, but that’s nothing; his late-season varieties, like the fairtime peach, may reach 26 brix—as sweet as wine grapes. Manas says that “big box” store peaches may look swell, but how do they taste?
“Ever chew on a piece of cardboard?” he says.
Seven peach varieties grow on the Manas property, including redtop, elegant lady and O’Henry peaches, which Manas sells at the ranch for just 75 cents to $1.30 per pound. He regularly treats his trees with fungicide to stave off the much-maligned “brown rot,” an ailment that doesn’t harm the tree but turns many if not all of its fruits to stinking, inedible mush. Otherwise, Manas applies “integrated pest management” to his orchard, encouraging insects to frolic among the branches and, most importantly, to eat each other while they’re at it.
In Winters, Ed George of The Peach Farm has no qualms against spraying his trees, though he hasn’t yet and he may never. It’s a bridge he’ll cross when his first crop arrives next year. For now, George’s trees—18 each of 20 varieties planted last year—are just spindly sticks sagging under the weight of a few fruits apiece. Several are sure crowd pleasers, like the O’Henry, some old-fashioned favorites, like the Fay Elberta, and some rare and bizarre beauties, most notably the Indian blood peach, a marvelous fruit crimson inside and purple without.
George’s peaches are mostly freestones—the sort from which the pit separates so nicely and satisfyingly from the flesh as one pulls it apart. Cling peaches are crunchier, best suited for canning and with pits that “cling” annoyingly to the flesh.
“I grew up a freestone guy,” says George, who still lives on the family ranch, which his dad named “The Peach Farm” decades ago. “Out in Yuba City, that’s old cling country. You can eat clings, but they’re a whole different ballgame. They’re canning peaches. I’m in the fresh market.”
While the peach season began in May and June, George feels the early varieties are scarcely worth eating, having matured amidst late frosts and spring rains that only subdue a fruit’s sugar development. But they’re something to chew on, anyway, while those August and September peaches soak up the blazing sun of summer, and George—who is watching his Indian bloods swell with sweetness—says the best peaches are yet to come.