The Best Peach on Earth
This little town, a 90-minute train ride west of Shanghai, is a world away from Georgia. There's no Peachtree Street, no peach pie, no peach ice cream. About all Yangshan has are the juiciest, most delicious peaches on earth.
In 10,000 orchards, ranging from the backyards of homes to substantial farms, Yangshan's trees are now groaning with a bumper crop of shui mi tao, "water honey peaches." Big, soft and white-fleshed, they must be tasted to be believed; in this peach lover's estimation, nothing from Georgia or California comes close. They are best eaten over a sink, to avoid showering the floor with peach juice.
With its wide-ranging climates and topography, Asia is a fruit lover's paradise, boasting some of the world's best-tasting mangoes, pears and bananas. Yet in an age when Australian lamb and Kobe beef from Japan wing their way around the world, most Asian fruits remain thousands of miles from U.S. kitchens.
By the time a peach was flown in from China, treated with irradiation or chemicals to kill pests, and then trucked to a retailer's produce aisle, it would be so expensive that almost no one would buy it. In Tokyo, $100 melons and $25 mangoes are lovingly displayed in major department stores and quickly purchased. But a $100 melon, not to mention a $10 peach, would in America likely draw more unbelieving stares than purchasers.
The American marketing system puts a premium on long shelf life, while Asian fruits are never bred to be eaten weeks after being picked. In Thailand, the wonderfully aromatic and flavorful nam wa banana has a lifespan of five days between the time when it's completely green and when it's overripe. By contrast in the U.S., the Cavendish banana—that long, yellow banana that pushes aside all other varieties in supermarkets—can be picked in Central America hard and green weeks in advance, sent by ship and ripened by gas. It's the perfect banana for merchandisers, notwithstanding the fact that it has no aroma and no taste.
Thai bananas are long-lived compared with China's honey peaches. Picked in the morning, the peaches are flown to Beijing or trucked to Shanghai in the afternoon; in many cases, they are selling in stores the same evening. On a recent Saturday afternoon in Yangshan's wholesale peach market, I asked a grower to find me a carton of peaches that I could take home with me to Bangkok on Monday. No peach in the market would last that long, he replied; I'd have to go with him to his orchard so he could pick me hard, green ones. He warned me that I'd be sacrificing some taste because they would be picked too early. By Tuesday, the green peaches I ended up taking home with me were so soft that I had to put them all in the refrigerator. They were still delicious.
Tang Haijun, a big honey peach grower and an industry spokesman, says another problem with Chinese peaches is that they are extraordinarily fragile. "They're so tender, if you press on one, in an hour there will be a black spot," he says. Over a lunch of local specialties (snails, pigs feet, pumpkin stems, his peaches for dessert), Mr. Tang explained that to keep away insects, he has every peach in his orchard individually wrapped with newspaper while it is ripening on the tree. All this special handling comes at a price: A honey peach sells for as much as $3 in a Shanghai or Beijing grocery store.
In the U.S., peach technology produces a very different product. "It's unfortunate that many of our peaches are bred to have superior shelf life and exterior color," says Karen Caplan, chief executive of Frieda's Inc., a Los Alamitos, Calif., high-end distributor of imported and domestic produce. "The growers don't focus on flavor. They refrigerate them in transit, put them on the shelf, and they go mealy."
"The whole fruit industry in this country is about decorating stores," says John Driver, a Modesto, Calif., apricot grower who sends his fruit to farmers markets around San Francisco. "They're looking for size, color and hardness, but people don't want to eat the things."
Al Courchesne, owner of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, Calif., strives to grow older varieties of peaches that emphasize flavor. He says the best peaches have yellow or white skin with only a little red color. Supermarket peaches are bred to be almost entirely red. "The supermarket industry claims their studies show that people purchase fruit by color, and the color red triggers an expectation of sweetness in the human brain," he says. If that's the case, our brains wouldn't give Chinese honey peaches a second look. Their skins are a sickly, greenish white.
Growing honey peaches on U.S. farms isn't practical, either. "It can be done, but it would be very time-consuming," says Mr. Courchesne, speaking of Agriculture Department regulations that require quarantine of imported fruit trees. To prevent the arrival of agricultural viruses, the USDA requires a period of isolation that could last several years, he says. When that period was over, growers would have trees bearing an ugly-looking fruit so delicate it would require special handling and rapid-fire distribution.
The best bet, then, is to eat honey peaches in China, and that's what I did with wild abandon, consuming 10 peaches, averaging half a pound each, in a single day in Yangshan. Under the tutelage of Mr. Tang, I learned that Chinese peach-eating is a very different process. First, you should gently massage the peach for several minutes, releasing the juice. When it starts feeling like a sponge, it's ready to be peeled; the skin slips off like a glove. Then you just pick it up whole and slurp away; cutting it would result in waste of the delicious juice.
The water honey peaches must be individually wrapped to prevent insect infestation during the late-stage growth period.
Chinese cities are flooded with honey peaches during peach season, which is July and August; every fruit market has bushels of them. The nearest train station to Yangshan, in Wuxi, has so many stands selling peaches in gift boxes that the entire station, not noted otherwise for its pristine air, takes on an enticing peach odor. Mr. Tang looked shocked when I told him that Americans ate bowls of fruit for breakfast or cut peaches over their cereal. The Chinese would never eat a peach (or almost any other fruit) at breakfast. Despite the willingness of Chinese chefs to toss exotic ingredients into their woks, peaches are never used for cooking, nor are they turned into sauces to accompany duck or anything else—not even ice cream, which is widely consumed in China. "You just eat them," Mr. Tang said, shrugging. The same goes for other fruits, like oranges. Once I visited Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, at the peak of orange season; vendors were literally selling huge piles of oranges at every street corner. But even at a luxury hotel, I was unable to get a glass of fresh orange juice (only some upscale restaurants in China serve a glass or pitcher of fresh fruit juice, and even then only at lunch or dinner).
When Mr. Tang heard my recitation of the ways peaches are eaten in the U.S., his eyes lit up at the export possibilities. "Could our best peaches sell for 600 yuan a kilo in America?" he asked. That translates to $40 a pound.