A plain cook: on peaches

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In her regular series, award-winning blogger and best-selling author Laura Hutton explores simple ingredients that can make the daily necessities a delicious pleasure. This month: peaches

Words: Laura Hutton
Image: Regula Ysewijn

Things were calming down on the domestic front, then something happened. Again. It’s always the way. The dog is nicely settled in, the adolescents are more or less contained—and then the other half goes and retires. Well, semi-retires. But how this translates to daily life has been a shock. It never occurred to me that he would be around the house more.

Firstly, I have learned that RHS (Retired Husband Syndrome) is a thing. If you are not there yet, brace yourself. That’s all I can say.

There are other unintended consequences. Suddenly, the fridge is awash with luncheon meat and other tidbits which offer sustenance and independence at the same time. To the point where we are shopping for a new fridge because, also suddenly, my pleas about the impracticality of the current fridge have finally been heard.

Sadly, shopping for a new fridge does not fill the long hours previously occupied by employment. The pressure for some time away was building. By a complete stroke of luck, way before the big ‘R’ hit, I decided to book a girls-only week with my daughter. There are so many transitions around here it is hard to keep up, but hers I can see coming and shamelessly, like Meryl Steep in Mamma Mia, I want to cling on as long as I can. So off we went to Sicily, leaving behind the men, the dog and the impractical fridge. 

This is not about travel, so I will abstain from going on about how glorious Sicily is, but I can say we ate well—as you would expect, but what I loved most was not what I expected.

It was the peaches. They were on offer for breakfast the first day and, since it was so hot, it was all I could manage. It turned out to be the best peach I have ever had. That first morning peach, an ordinary, fuzzy-skinned baseball-shaped yellow peach, tasted perfect, which was as surprising as the realisation that I had allowed sub-par peach standards to creep in. It was as if I hadn’t actually eaten a peach in years.

Obsession quickly took hold and, for the entire week, it was a peach for breakfast, plus one slipped in the beach bag for elevenses. At every greengrocers, I looked past the extraordinary aubergines, peppers and courgettes to seek out the pesca.

The standard, untrendy yellow ones were everywhere, but they also had a good selection of fashionable flat white peaches, which were equally exquisite. Shape and colour were simply no consequence; they were all perfumed and dripping and tender.

One day I spotted a new kind: round, plump and perfectly pale with no red tinges, like a baby’s bottom. A fresh tinned peach, basically. I started buying these, as my late afternoon peach. Not as flavoursome as the others but still, as fine a peach as I’ve had in many a year. Which was sort of depressing. Sicily is a long way to go for a fruit.

We returned, peach-filled, bronzed and more harmonious. But it never takes long for reality to set back in and before I knew it, I was vetting the fridge for improperly wrapped deli items and other infractions. Task finished, I sat down to enjoy my one smuggled peach. Slightly bruised in transport but every bit as sweet and scented and juicy. The last peach.

Peach tips
There is no getting around the fact that peaches taste best close to the place they are grown; they do not travel well. They can be picked before ripening but once they’re off the tree, the flavour ceases to develop even though they will continue to ripen, so buy peaches in season, from a market stall where you can ask where they came from and how they got there.

Cooking with peaches
There are difficulties in producing a recipe which includes peaches. On the one hand, there are the classics, which are classics for a reason and for which you can find hundreds of recipes—peach pie, peach cobbler, peach ice cream—and then there is the plain and simple truth: that the best way to enjoy a ripe peach in season is just to eat it. No recipe required.

Of course, if you have an abundance of wonderful peaches ripening faster than you can eat them, peach jam is a very good option. Preserves are meant to do just that—preserve the taste of summer for enjoyment year-round. But if you make jam with unflavourful peaches, the jam too will lack flavour. No amount of simmering can capture and preserve flavour that was never there at the start. I say this from experience.

As a compromise, I’ve come up with a no-bake recipe for peaches and cream refrigerator cake: a blissfully simple way to make the most of fresh, seasonal peaches.