By Sarah Jampel, Bon Appetit
Might I be so bold to throw my hat into the ring and call it The Summer of the Donut Peach?
Okay, so maybe it’s a stretch, but I’ve seen more squat, pancaked peaches—which are sweeter, milder, and less fuzzy than their spherical sibs—this year than ever before. What once seemed like a rarity, sold at only the fanciest grocery stores (when Florence Fabricant wrote about “a new kind of white peach” sold at Grace’s Marketplace in 1993, she called the fruit “juicy and luscious” though “peculiar” and “positively deformed”) has become commonplace: crates piled high at the farmers’ market, clamshells for sale at Whole Foods and on Fresh Direct. I love their name, their look, and their feel, and I can’t leave the market without buying at least one for each palm.
With such a funny shape (they’re like the Persian cats of peaches), you might assume there’s some funny business going on with their breeding. But flat peaches aren’t genetically-modified oddities at all: They’re the descendants of wild pan tao (also called peento) peaches from China, which were introduced to the US nearly 150 years ago. It wasn’t until the ‘60s and ‘70s, however, that scientists at Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station hybridized the plants to produce hardier, frost-resistant trees with bigger, sweeter, peachier fruit. They called the fruit, low in acid and high in sugar, the Saturn (you can guess why).
Jerry Frecon, now a horticultural consultant and Rutgers professor emeritus, worked with Dr. Fred Hough to develop Saturn at the Agricultural Experiment Station, then, in the ‘80s, brought the variety to Stark Bro’s Nurseries and Orchards Co. in Missouri, which purchased the license to grow and sell the trees.
When the Stark Bro’s’ license for the Saturn peach expired in the early 2000s, more farmers were able to grow flat peaches than ever before, opening up the market and putting flat peaches in more stores. And since those early days, many more varieties of trademarked flat peaches have been introduced in US markets—Frecon estimates there are 15 to 20 kinds in this country, and many more around the world—as people have grafted and hybridized.