There’s a trick to eating a peach straight off the tree. Carrie Schnepf demonstrates. "Twist it. Bend over. Take a bite. And the juice runs down your arm. Or on your shirt," says the co-owner of Schnepf Farms, where six peach varieties are ripening into what local producers say is the most resplendent crop in many years.
The combination of heavy rain in December and January and subsequent mild weather (for the Valley) has definitely produced the Queen Creek farm’s best peaches in a decade, says Carrie’s husband, Mark Schnepf.
"Maybe ever," he says.
The farm is one of at least three in the East Valley where customers can still select their produce straight out of Mother Nature’s grocery basket. There used to be more you-pick farms, says T.J. McCuin, who operates the market in front of one of the remaining orchards, but they now have new homes growing on them instead.
Early peaches from California are showing up in supermarkets. The main crop, when both fruit and price are at their best, probably won’t be in stores until the third or fourth week of May, local produce managers say.
Meanwhile, local peach orchards are at maximum ripeness for certain varieties, such as the Florida Prince and the slightly bigger Earligrand — the premier peach at Schnepf Farms and the star of this weekend’s Queen Creek Peach Festival.
In the orchard behind the Guadalupe Farmers Market Too owned by McCuin are Desert Gold, Florida Kings and other peach varieties that will ripen for the next five or six weeks.
There is, says both Mark Schnepf and McCuin, a "world of difference" between a peach ripe off the tree and its grocery-store counterpart. The ripe-off-the-tree fruit is more delicate and has a shorter shelf life, but the flavor and texture are incredible.
Susie Lyons, an instructional specialist with Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension, likes to eat peaches halved and broiled with a sprinkling of brown sugar. They are also good in chutney, salsa, with chicken dishes or poached in a simple wine syrup, she says. "It’s a low-fat, easy summer dessert that you don’t have to mess with."
Carrie Schnepf uses fully ripe and almost-ripe fruit for her signature Peachy Cinnamon Rolls. The almost-ripe peaches go into the rolls, and the ripe fruit is saved for the icing. She squeezes the whole peach over a mixture of powdered sugar, vanilla extract and melted butter. Juice spurts everywhere — almost half a cup — and the sweet, sunshiney smell of peach fills the Schnepf bakery.
"Now, that’s a peach," she says.
• Pull and twist the fruit when you
• Take boxes to carry peaches in a single layer, don’t stack.
• Line the box with a cushion to hold the peaches in place, such as a clean bath towel.
• The peaches ripen quickly once picked, so pick fruit that’s a little on the firm side if you aren’t planning to use all of it in the next day or so.