Last April, Bill Gammie of Quarry Hill Orchards in Berlin Heights already had peaches on his mind. The Erie County Farm Bureau member wasn’t thinking about biting into the tender flesh and letting the sweet juice trickle down his chin, but wondering if the Ohio weather that tends to throw fruit farmers a curve or two even into early May would be kind this year.
While there are more than 1,300 acres in the state used for growing peaches, the past few seasons have been less than stellar in terms of yield.
“When the trees survive the winter, you breathe easier,” said Gammie, “but you’re not out of the woods yet. April is critical.” All it takes is one fluke spring freeze to literally nip a promising harvest in the bud. There have been years when Gammie and his orchard crew spent more time looking for peaches than picking them when summer rolls around.
Quarry Hill’s 120-acre orchard and vineyard for its companion winery, which opened earlier this year, sits on a portion of a ridge that stretches 70 miles across northern Ohio, from Berea to Sandusky. Dubbed Ohio’s “fruit belt,” the ridge encompasses a swath of farms, vineyards and orchards.
“Its main attribute is that it’s elevated slightly and close enough to Lake Erie to benefit from some favorable effects,” Gammie said. Warm breezes off the lake in the spring can keep the temperature warmer by a degree or two, which is just enough to dodge a damaging frost. It also extends the growing season, keeping orchards and vineyards warmer in the fall. “The sandy soil is well drained and good for peach production,” he added. “Peaches and other fruit trees don’t like wet feet.”
Most of the acreage at Quarry Hill is in apple production, but 30 acres are devoted to growing more than 25 varieties of the fuzzy skinned stone fruit that speak of summer. When the season progresses without a hitch, that amounts to about 5,000 bushels to sell at the orchard’s on-farm market and the North Union Farmers Market at Crocker Park that will go into pies, cobblers, preserves, canning and enjoying out of hand.
Of all the peaches Gammie and his crew harvests, the most popular and prolific is Red Haven. Harvested mid-season, it’s an all-time favorite for eating, canning and baking. White peach varieties like Snow Queen enjoy a shorter season and a lot of attention with their almost perfume-like aroma and distinct floral sweetness, wonderful when served with an Ohio ice wine. The squat Donut Peach, an heirloom variety as well as a novelty, is tender and low in acid, good for fresh eating.
“Like cars and fashion, something new is always coming along,” Gammie said. Of all the peaches in the orchards, his new personal favorite is Sweet Dreams, a variety he’s only picked once in the past four years. Yellow fleshed, low in acid and intensely, perhaps amazingly, sweet, it can grow to the size of a baseball, maybe bigger.
Gammie picks peaches from mid July through late summer, often into late September, waiting for each variety to reach its peak of ripeness and flavor before plucking.
“In Ohio, that’s the advantages of having on-farm or community farmers markets,” he said. “Peaches that get shipped to a store are picked under ripe and once a peach is picked, it doesn’t increase in sugar or flavor. Ours are picked at the right moment.”
In search of the perfect peach? Gammie advises his customers to look for colorful peaches that have an all over yellow background with a blush of red around the stem that “give” a little with a gentle squeeze and, when sniffed, deliver a wonderful, heady bouquet. To be certain, he invites his customers to take a taste.
“It’s the only sure way to know.”
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of “Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate”.
Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards.
Quarry Hill Winery
8403 Mason Road
Berlin Heights, OH 44814
Cling Versus Freestone Peaches
The first peaches to come out of Ohio orchards are cling peaches, varieties that stubbornly “cling” to the stone. They vary in taste from mild to rich and are good for eating fresh and making jams and preserves. You’ll rarely find these beauties in a grocery store, which makes them another terrific local find. Freestone peaches follow in the harvest, and are larger, firmer and juicier than cling varieties. When halved, the flesh comes away cleanly from the stone, making these varieties excellent for slicing for salads and canning.
If you’ve never grilled peaches before, use freestones for this simple preparation: Brush the cut side of pitted peach halves with butter. Place them cut side down on a medium hot grill and grill until slightly soft and grill marks appear. Remove and fill the cavity with a tablespoon of blue cheese or goat cheese, drizzle lightly with honey and top with a few chopped walnuts.
How to Peel a Peach
Peeling a bushel or a peck of peaches can be a chore but if it’s just a few peaches, you may be able to peel the skin off using a serrated vegetable peeler. These handy tools have ridges or “teeth” rather than a smooth blade and can also be used to skin other smooth skinned stone fruit, like nectarines and plums, as well as tomatoes.
When you are faced with peeling more than a few peaches, try blanching and loosening the skin then “shocking,” or halting the cooking with a chilly ice water bath. When the peaches are perfectly ripe, it gets the job done quickly.
Fill a large stockpot with water and bring to a boil.
Using a paring knife, cut a small ‘x’ into the bottom of each peach.
Put the peaches in the water for about 30 seconds, only long enough to loosen the skin, not cook the peach. (For subsequent batches, let the water return to a boil.)
When the time is up, use a strainer to transfer the peaches to a bowl filled with ice water. This halts the cooking action.
After about 2 minutes, remove the peaches from the water. The skins should slip off easily. Halve, pit and proceed with the recipe.