Peach and Blackberry Crostata is a perfect dessert for any summer barbeque. (MCT) - MCT

Local peaches are precious

Occupying just over 100 local acres, with a commercial value of $1.5 million, peaches pale in agricultural significance next to the Rogue Valley's thousands of acres of prized pears.

But to fans of local, seasonal and peerless foods, peaches are precious.

Grown locally since the mid-1800s, peaches and other stone fruits thrive in some of the valley's rockier, better-drained parcels, while the region's heavier clay soils are more appropriate for pears.

Whereas locally grown pears, with their affinity for cold storage, can be purchased for months into late winter, local peaches persist only into September. And unlike pears, which travel across the country as well as apples, oranges or bananas, peaches lose luster with each mile away from home. Those mealy, dry peaches that never attain sweet, juicy ripeness away from the grocery store have suffered from chill damage in transit.

Indeed, Los Angeles Times food editor and author Russ Parsons claims that peaches are among the few foods that always should be purchased at farmers markets or farm stands. Common varieties in our area include Hale, Red Skin, Red Haven and the heirloom Elberta. The '49ers, which store well and have a high sugar content, are used almost exclusively by Harry & David for gift boxes, according to the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center.

To pick a perfect peach, look for a background color that's yellowish-orange with no green. A golden color is a sign of maturity, which means sugar has built up inside the fruit. Red blush on a peach is no indication of ripeness but rather the result of genetics, as is the prevalence of fuzz.

Next, trust your nose. A ripe peach has a penetrating fragrance that should be evident from across the room. Softness is least important. A firm peach will ripen on the counter in a few days, and it's better to have one that's a bit firm rather than soft and bruised.

In the Rogue Valley, we have several sizeable orchards that sell directly to the public. Sugar Plum Acres in Phoenix is a U-pick-only operation, while Valley View Orchard in Ashland offers U-pick and a farm store of picked fruit. See www.mailtribune.com/eatlocal for more information.

Meyer Orchards on Tarry Lane in Talent sells several grades and varieties directly to the public. A favorite of food preservers has long been Central Point's Beebe Farms, which sells "seconds" for canning.

It's been my mother-in-law's habit to purchase a 40-pound lug of peaches at Beebe every other year. If we're lucky, we can plow through peeling, pitting, halving or slicing and putting up the fruit in a daylong marathon.

Last year, she raised the white flag with a few dozen fruit left to go. The next day, I reassembled the peeling and slicing assembly line but skipped setting up the canning equipment. Instead, I dunked the peaches in a strong lemon-juice solution and tossed them in granulated sugar. Even though I didn't want heavily sweetened peaches, my goal was to prevent browning.

And it worked like a charm. Packed into quart-sized freezer bags with as much air squeezed out as possible, the fruit was still a gorgeous, golden color in early spring when I paired it with frozen blackberries for a cobbler.

Peaches and blackberries may seem like an odd combination, but it makes total sense to me. I've vowed to spend this August and September picking from all the brambles overrunning local waterways, including the stretch of Rogue River near our home.

Because they're free, blackberries are worth a few punctured fingertips, lacerated legs and snagged shirts. And because I laid in enough peaches last year for this summer, I have a day or two to spare.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish, see her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/thewholedish or follow @thewholedish on Twitter.

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