The peach deluge is over for this year. For two weeks from the end of August into the second week of September a flood of peaches and a surge of panic fill the house while the three peach trees in my life deposit their fruit on the ground, in waiting baskets, and on the kitchen table, attracting admiration and fruit flies in equal quantity.
Every year I fantasize that the end of summer is going to bring calm and quiet compared to July and August, and I forget what it’s like having hundreds of peaches awaiting attention.
Every year, some person in my acquaintance says, “I didn’t think you could grow peaches in Maine.” Well, you sure can. At least here on the island we’ve been growing peaches a long time. There are a couple more or less famous trees that the community notes: for example, one at the junkyard and another down-island by a row of mailboxes with its laden branches lovingly propped up by supportive boards which supplies several families who get peaches with their mail. And Fedco, the Waterville-based seed, tree, and tuber supplier, has been selling peach trees for quite a long time. I have a Reliant, and two Red Havens, both bred for colder parts, and my trees have prompted other people I know to acquire peach trees of their own. We could plant more of them out here.
This year my peaches were mostly small and very sweet, and not as plagued by hornets as usual. Some years, when it is wet and warm, the peaches take up water, crack, and picking one meant juice dripping down my arm. Some years they develop mold; I’ve seen a peach turn into a fuzzy gray globe in a matter of a few hours. Not this year.
The trees set heavily, and we thinned relentlessly, rubbing and plucking hundreds of pea and olive-sized peaches off over-ambitious branches. Still, there were lots of them, and the unnerving sound of peaches thudding to the ground when I go out to pick leaves me mildly frantic as I try to scoop up as many as I can even as plenty are left for creatures, birds, and insects to feast on. Someone I spoke with observed a rabbit on its hind legs eating low-hanging fruit, and sure enough one of my trees had peaches with teeth marks on it.
Friends came and picked to freeze, make cobbler, crisp, shortcake, and pies, or to eat out of hand while driving home. The home supply tally this year is nine pints of chutney, seven half-pints of jam, and 43 pints of canned peaches.
Having discovered the joys of small-batch canning, whereby I process four jars at a time, a handy number, I saved water and easily geared up daily as peaches ripened. Their small size this year meant they slid, peeled and pitted, into jars with no argument. I peeled some easily, the skin striping away cleanly and others I blanched which charmingly stains their golden faces with a rosy glow, as I simply rub the skin away. One peach pit added per jar enhances the flavor. Blanched peaches fill jars with their own juice, needing only a topping off with a light sugar syrup.
I hear the old modern refrain: “That’s a lot of work.” What’s work? I’d choose baskets full, sticky juice, drip-covered table, floor, stove, bubbling pots, and fruit flies over a commute and cubical any day. And in January when I open a jar of peaches, I taste late summer, inhale the peach aroma I smell standing among the branches of a tree full of ripe fruit, and thank heaven above for the honorable task of preserving a plethora of peaches.
Sandy Oliver is a food historian who lives, gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro.