Sure, berries might reign supreme, melons are adored by honeybees, and cherries demand accolades, but nothing beats summer stone fruits in my book. A perfumy peach, nectarine, or apricot still warm from the sun and dripping with juice. Or a rosy-fleshed plum, still firm enough that my teeth snap through the dark skin yet the inside is so tender and sweet-tart one is never enough. I lived for an entire summer as a broke student on lunches of nectarines, cottage cheese, and Rye Crisp—thriving on the luscious fruit (the name for nectarine is derived form the Greek nektar or “sweet liquid”.) Another long ago summer I spent a few weeks in Greece, buying the most amazing peaches at the outdoor markets in Athens. Then frequenting the dairy shops that sold gorgeously rich whole-fat yogurt that I ate with a hefty spoonful of the required local honey. I’d never tasted anything so good and it flummoxes me still that it took so long for real Greek yogurt to arrive on American shores.
I do have to admit I’ve never been a full fan of peach fuzz, so lean towards loving smooth-skinned nectarines a fraction more. Some offer a spicy edge to their juiciness that most peaches don’t have. Wild peaches originated in China and were small and sour (and quite hairy I’m told). But the Chinese cultivated them and they became a symbol of longevity and immortality and were revered enough to travel the world in the pockets of wanderers. The Chinese cultivated wild plums too, in a dizzying variety from quite tiny to as large as a baseball; round, elongated, or heart-shaped. Plums flourish in many places, with France embracing both fresh and dried pruneau in classic pastry recipes like an almondy frangipane tart. But California is home to my very favorite, the Satsuma, which is Asian by origin and has a dark red flesh that’s addictive—both sweet but slightly sour depending on how ripe it is.
I’ve grown up with stone fruits living large in family recipes. My mom has a passion for churning homemade peach ice cream; a spiced prune cake is a required hostess gift for all picnics; bushels of Santa Rosa plums are pitted and wedged up for freezing—then transformed into warm fruit compotes to serve with roasted meats in the winter. Damson plum jam, with a splash of French Armagnac liqueur is just right slathered on toasted bread with a smear of farm butter. And a peach or nectarine pie, thickened with tapioca and lightly sweetened with honey and a sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg, is the definition of summertime.