Fruit expert David Karp shares how to pick the tastiest nectarines and apricots of the season.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How did you get interested in fruit varieties? Why are they important?
David Karp: About 5 years ago, when I started writing articles about fruit for The New York Times, I concentrated on three factors that determine how a fruit tastes: the growing area, its climate and soil; its ripeness when picked; and post-harvest treatment, shipping and storage. I knew that variety, the particular kind of fruit, was very important.
Only gradually, in the course of talking to growers, experts, and fruit fanatics, did I realize the incredible difference in flavor between the best varieties -- superfruits such as Blenheim apricots, Golden Russet apples and Cavaillon melons -- and mediocre commercial fruit, such as Red Delicious apples and Sunburst tangerines. It's like the difference between Château Pétrus and vin ordinaire -- but the best varieties don't necessarily cost more.
LRK: Why don't farmers grow mostly the best-tasting varieties?
DK: Farmers are in business to make money. They choose varieties that are early-maturing, high-yielding, attractive-looking, resistant to disease and pests, and hardy enough to survive the trip to market in good condition. Flavor is secondary.
It's hard to blame them. If you had to choose between growing great fruit and sending your kids to college, what would you do? The growers themselves say that it's the wholesale distributors who insist on firm, tasteless fruit that holds up forever -- honeydew melons like cement blocks and nectarines like red rocks. American shoppers are all too willing to accept speciously attractive but insipid commercial fruit -- they buy with their eyes, not with their taste buds.
LRK: In Saveur you wrote about apricot varieties.
DK: I spent two weeks in California intensively researching apricots for that article. Until the 1950s the main apricot grown in California was the Blenheim, a sweet, luscious, delicately fragrant fruit that flourished in the Santa Clara Valley around San Jose.
Then the subdivisions of what would be known as Silicon Valley pushed out most of the farmers. Many moved 50 miles east to the Central Valley, where land is cheaper but fierce summer heat turns the delicate Blenheim's flesh to mush.
In the last 20 years the Patterson, a hardy variety originally developed for canning, has come to dominate production. This strain is an alluring bright orange, tough enough to ship well and outproduces the Blenheim two to one. But it lacks the subtle-yet-penetrating flavor of a good apricot.
The result is that you can hardly find decent apricots. Americans buy only a measly 3 1/2 ounces of fresh apricots yearly.
LRK: Give us some examples of summer superfruits.
DK: In late June at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market near Los Angeles, I saw some gnarly-looking Stanwick nectarines with greenish white and russet cracked skins. They looked so bad I knew they had to be delicious, because that's what many of the original nectarines were like 100 years ago before they were "improved" by modern hybridizers. I bit into one -- it was incredible! The skin was bitter, the flesh was creamy white, dense and a bit fibrous, but with a rich, vinous flavor maybe three times as intense as any other nectarine I've ever tasted.
This Stanwick was like an entirely different fruit. Its season is over, but dried Stanwicks are available. The grower, Truman Kennedy of Reedley, Calif., in the Central Valley, specializes in fully ripe heirloom stone fruits. Over the next month or so he'll have Rosemary plums, Arkansas Indian white peaches, and Royal Giant yellow-fleshed nectarines, virtually extinct commercially, but so intensely flavored.
Many of the best varieties are late season because they take time to develop sugar and flavor. In early October at the New York Union Square Greenmarket I look for Iron Mountain white peaches: greenish-white and incredibly fuzzy, but oh-so-sweet when dead ripe.
LRK: What are the best sources for superfruits?
DK: The best source is your own garden or a neighbor's. Next best are pick-your-own orchards and local farmstands. Most cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Minneapolis, have farmer's markets or greenmarkets. But remember that there's plenty of mediocre commercial fruit to be had at greenmarkets too. Look around, sample, search for a grower with unusual varieties and a mad gleam in his eye, and ask questions. Also, organic markets sometimes carry superior varieties -- I suppose a higher percentage of organic farmers run small operations and take greater pride in their products. Don't be a sucker for good looks -- the best-tasting fruits are often the fragile "seconds" -- but do pay attention to a fruit's aroma, often a good indicator of quality.
Karp's recommendations for books and organizations:
- My favorite book on fruit varieties is Cornucopia: A Source Book on Edible Plants by Stephen Facciola, a splendid compendium the size of a Manhattan phone book of thousands of varieties and where they can be obtained.
- I'm a member of California Rare Fruit Growers, whose magazine, Fruit Gardener, has carried articles about red-fleshed apples, striped pink lemons, and the over 100 varieties of passion fruit.
- I'm also in touch with the North American Fruit Explorers and the Rare Fruit Council International in Miami.