Talking Peaches with MH Produce Fruit Guru David Findlay
Are tree-ripe peaches in season? Yes, when you're in on the secrets of foothill farming. You can still make that tree-ripe peach galette!
Over the last two decades, while shopping at MH Produce, you may have glimpsed him: an unassuming man in a green apron, stocking pears or pointing customers to a certain section of apples, mangoes, pomegranates or berries. This is David Findlay, Fruit Guru, and if you ever get a chance to talk to him about fruit, you're likely to come away enlightened. David's hazel eyes sparkle with visionary luster as he discusses fruit, and his simplest statements are followed by a brilliant smile that indicates far greater depths than he's letting on. His enthusiasm is contagious. We sat down with him to talk about fingers of flame, hailstone craters, and how to pick the perfect peach.
When did you first get interested in fruits and vegetables?
"It all started with my grandmother's raspberry patch in Quebec. I grew up in Eastern Canada, and I would spend every summer there. She sold to the tourists who came to the Ottawa River. When I was older, I moved to Vancouver and got involved in a food coop. Eventually, I made a pilgrimage to the Santa Barbara mountains to visit the Brotherhood of the Sun organic farm."
Why did you move to California?
Did you get it?
"No. I got distracted by peaches."
Did you study agriculture?
"No , but ten years ago, I went to UC Davis for a post-harvest handling seminar, and pretty much everything in the curriculum, I already knew. The professor asked me where I'd studied. I'd studied the fruit!"
Why do you love peaches so much?
He picks up a peach from a basket next to us and spreads his fingers around it.
"Fingers of flame. See how that glows? The only fruit that glows like that is fruit picked at high maturity. It fills your body with energy! My theory is that peaches in a prime position on the tree—out of the canopy and on a prime branch—taste better. I don't think that organic fruit is necessarily small because it's organic. Sometimes it's because a farmer is letting his trees load up with fruit and not pruning away the excess fruit in the spring. You need to remove some excess so that the energy of the tree gets into the fruit. This is only my theory—I have never farmed."
What exactly are fingers of flame?
"See these marks, almost like flame? (pictured, above) There's a first pick and a second pick because every kind of fruit ripens at a different pace. The first pick is of the outer perimeter fruit, and the second pick is closer in under the leaf canopy. The O'Henry peaches that we have now almost all have fingers of flame, like a photographic images—sun prints—of where the sun struck and where the leaves shaded the fruit."
What's so great about a great peach?
"Everything is right about our O'Henry peaches from Goldbud Farms. Three major factors come to mind:
Factor 1: There is basically a 7-day window in which to pick a peach. These have been left on the tree three or four hot days longer than a supermarket peach. Supermarket peaches are picked early, on Day 1, when still hard, into picking aprons that make it easy to climb into the tree, then dumped into 500-pound bins, crashing into each other, and transported to a conveyer belt. If these peaches were ripe—if they were picked on day 4 or 5, they'd bruise. The O'Henrys are picked on Day 7, and placed gently into a rigid container lined with foam.
Factor 2: This specially designed container allows for zero bruising of truly ripe peaches. (pictured, below) The fruit is laid into these foam-lined crates, and foam is laid between the peaches.
Factor 3: Goldbud fruit trees are spaced wide apart, to let in sunlight. Supermarket peach trees are planted close together, so everything's under a leaf canopy, and the fruit is unlikely to have fingers of flame. A sun-penetrable leaf canopy can only be created when trees are spaced wider apart, with fewer trees occupying the ground—which means a more expensive peach.
Factor 4: The elevation of the Placerville foothills makes for hot days and cold nights. This temperature fluctuation makes for a tastier fruit. You can get that fluctuation from elevation but also from proximity to a body of water."
You keep mentioning Goldbud Farms.
"We get our fruit from a lot of great farmers, but much of our early fall fruit from Goldbud Farms because they have a later season and because of the conscientious way they grow their fruit. Goldbud Farms was started by a guy named Ron Mansfield, who has a great love for Placerville, andhe revived this once-thriving fruit-growing area. He also acted as an umbrella for really small family operations in the foothills."
How is it that they have a later season?
"The ranch's differing elevations allows for a second harvest. The great O'Henry you had on August 11 picked from trees on the valley floor can be experienced again now, picked from trees in the foothills—at a price. All of our best late August and September peaches are from Goldbud. Competing with them are the peaches from the Northwest, picked into bins. So clearly, there are two ways to extend the season: by elevation or by latitude."
Why is this second picking more expensive?
"Most years, the higher elevation kills a percentage of the blossoms—occasionally all of them—with a cold snap, and yields are cut dramatically, hence the higher price. But it's the only way to get tree-ripe peaches this late (pictured, right). Labor is another factor in price. Depending on the location, like in the foothills, you may have to provide permanent summer housing for workers."
Why do supermarket peaches look so ripe?
"Peaches of the previous generation, like the Fay Elberta, were generally much more yellow, with a tiny blush of red. But for 30 years, peaches have been bred to be darker, to fit people's ideas of what a ripe peach should look like. This gets the color, but not necessarily the flames. Now that peaches are bred darker, the trees can be moved closer together, with less contact from the sun, but the fruit will still read visually as sun-ripe. It will have the color, but not the flavor. This, you understand, is just my theory." [smiles]
So, what's the difference between a supermarket peach and a peach from Market Hall Produce?
"Supermarket peaches are picked hard so they won't bruise, they're sanitized, waxed, packaged, then put in cold storage and shipped. Ours are picked, carefully hand-sorted and delivered directly to Market Hall Foods by the farmer's own truck the very next day."
Can you tell us how to select the perfect peach?
"Look for fingers of flame, sunspots, hailstone craters, sutures and branch indentations."
David's Guide to Finding the Perfect Peach (or Nectarine):
"Basically, you're looking for signs of exposure."
Fingers of flame: [pictured, above] Glowing, non-red areas in the fruit. We need a knife at this point! If the peach is good, the same color as the fingers of flame will show up in the interior of the fruit. The only fruit that glows like this is fruit picked at high maturation. A mature fruit is influenced by its skin. Elephant Heart Plums, for example, show an internal graduation of color—the burgundy-red skin bleeds into the fruit. It's a kind of unusual plum, with a pyramid shape and a full flavor that, as it melts in your mouth, gets even more flavorful and wine-like, with a hint of almondy tannin.
Sunspots: Look for speckling. These tiny fruit freckles mean the sun touched them.
Hailstone craters: [pictured, above] When trees are in the mountains, they get hail in the spring when the peaches are still green. As the fruit grows, the craters get bigger. This again speaks of exposure. If you see a hailstone crater, you know the peach was an outer fruit.
Growth cracks: [pictured, above] See this crack? It happened when the fruit was still green, and speaks of exposure. Basically, you're looking for signs of exposure.
Branch imbed: [pictured at end of post] Look for dents caused by imbedded branches. This also indicates that the peach grew in the outer canopy of the tree on a prime feeder branch. Most people see these marks as hazards, akin to insect holes or something. However, these are the signs they should be looking for. A big branch imbed is rare—grab that peach!
Anything else to look for?
"Look for me! [laughs] Or Pedro—either Pedro." [pictured, David flanked by Pedro Sanchez and Pedro Salinas]
Why do you like O. Henry Peaches?
"Alongside the sweet and tart, there's a note of tannin from the skin. That's what makes it great for galettes and tarts, there's this background of almond flavor from the tannins—it would be great in a frangipane tart! It has density, it's toothsome, and a lot of peaches are not."
Is there a fruit you just don't like?
"Bananas. I could take 'em or leave 'em."
You've been at Market Hall Produce 17 years. Any particular memories?
"There are two families with teenaged kids, about 14 or 15 years old, that come in regularly, and they're teaching their kids to shop for themselves, how to select the best fruits and vegetables. Most modern families don't do this. I talk with the mothers—one is European and the other is from South Africa—and they're really proud of their kids learning to shop. I'd like to see more of that."
What's your favorite thing about working at Market Hall Produce?
"Serving the customers! I just never lose interest, I really don't. Every person who's genuinely interested in the fruit, I genuinely enjoy helping them. Adults and kids should feel comfortable to ask!"