Peaches are one of my favorite fruits. I realized I knew very little about their origin, so I decided to do a little research for this column. Peaches have an interesting history.
They originated in northwest China and have been cultivated since the Neolithic period. The oldest peach stones are from Kuahuquio, an early Neolithic archaeological site in Zhejiang Province. The site was first discovered in the 1970s during the construction of a brick factory that destroyed most of the site.
Professional excavations weren’t conducted until 1990. In addition to peach stones, archaeologists found other well-preserved organic remains that indicated that rice, dogs and pigs were already domesticated by the villagers.
The second oldest peach pit was found at the Neolithic Tianluoshan site in Zhejiang Province.
Peaches are mentioned in early 10th century Chinese literature. Wild peaches still remain in parts of China. Unlike the cultivated fruit, wild peaches are small and sour.
Peaches were transported to Persia via the silk roads. After conquering Persia, Alexander the Great introduced the fruit to Europe.
Sometime between 50 to 20 B.C.E., Romans grew and sold peaches. They called them Persian apples. The name for peach in several languages is the name for Persia (modern-day Iran). They are called pêche in French, pfirsich in German, pesca in Italian, pêssego in Portuguese and persik in Russian.
Spaniards took peaches to South America. The English took them to Jamestown. Thomas Jefferson planted peach trees at Monticello. The French introduced them in Louisiana.
China is the largest producer of peaches. Italy is second and they are the primary exporter of peaches in the European Union. California produces more than half of the peaches in the United States.
There are many varieties of peaches, but those considered the finest are small, red-flesh fruit called pêches de vigne grown only in French vineyards. They have a gray, downy skin which is deceptive, because the interior flesh is beautiful, and the flavor is said to be superb.
Now that I’ve learned a little about the origin of peaches, I want to know more. There is a book called "The Peaches of Samarkand" by Edward H. Schafer. It is about formal gifts that were sent by the Kingdom of Samarkand to the Chinese court at Ch’ang-an in the seventh century. Among the luxury items were fancy golden peaches as large as goose eggs.
No one is sure of the variety of these golden peaches, but they had the glamour of mystery and symbolized all the exotic things longed for, and unknown things hoped for, by the people of the T’ang empire.
I am going to put the book on my winter reading list. Before local peaches disappear, I plan to freeze some. That way, I can sip a Bellini (that luxurious peach cocktail invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice) while reading and learning more about one of my favorite fruits.
Black Bean Salad with Peaches and Pecans
(This may sound like a strange combination, but the textures and flavors are outstanding. The salad was so good, I made it twice while I had fresh Ohio peaches on hand.)
½ teaspoon grated lime zest
1 tablespoon lime juice
½ teaspoon honey
1 garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 peach, pitted and chopped
1/3 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons pecans, toasted and chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped fine
Salt and pepper
Whisk the lime zest, juice, honey, garlic and salt together in a bowl. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until emulsified.
Add the black beans, peaches, onion, pecans, parsley and pepper. Gently toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.