Food Talk: South Carolina, the tastier peach state
By Kathleen Parramore
Ada and Georgia Comer, the author’s grandchildren, enjoying an afternoon snack. Images by the author.
Bite into a South Carolina peach and you will taste summer and feed your body and soul. They are a gift of summertime and beyond this, they are just good eating!
Though Georgia is known as the “Peach State,” S.C. is known as the “Tastier Peach State.” S.C. produces three times more peaches than Georgia and is ranked number two behind California but number one in fresh peach production, as California crops are predominately used for canning and freezing. The Palmetto State declared the peach its official fruit in 1984.
The peach was first mentioned in Chinese writing in the tenth century. According to Britannia, Spanish explorers brought it to England and France, where it was a rare treat. Queen Victoria did not consider a meal complete without a peach. Later, they brought the peach to the New World, where it was seen in Mexico in the early 1600s. There it was only grown in the gardens of the nobility because it was hard to grow and short-lived compared to other fruit trees.
In the early 17th century, George Minifie, a horticulturist from England brought the peach to the colonies, and Native Americans are given credit for spreading the seed across America as they traveled. Commercial peach production did not catch on until the early 19th century. Henry William Ravenel of Aiken, S.C., was the first commercial shipper in 1859. Commercial production also began a little later in California, Washington state, Georgia and Missouri.
There are more than 2,000 varieties of peaches with more than 52 commercial varieties being grown in S.C. “Worldwide the peach is one of the most important of the deciduous tree fruits and China, Italy, Spain and the U.S. are the major producers.”
Our state’s peaches are grown in “the Ridge,” which is the area between Columbia and Augusta, the Piedmont (northwest) and the Coastal Plains (eastern shore). According to the S.C. Department of Agriculture, we produce 77,000 tons of peaches with a crop value of $75-90 million depending on the season. According to Juan Carlos Melgar, who is an associate professor of pomology at Clemson and speaking to The Packer, “Finally we’re going to have a normal year” with peach production on the Ridge (a major producing area) looking very good.
Rosebank Farms peaches.
Weather always plays a large factor in peach production, given its need for a temperate climate and a rich and sloping terrain. These challenges have reduced the number of packers and producers. I had an opportunity to talk with Elliot Shuler of Shuler Peach Company, which provides peaches to many local markets and GrowFood Carolina, a not-for-profit and an extension of the Coastal Conservation League. According to Elliot, it is a competitive market, and he encourages us all to check the sticker on a peach to make sure we are getting a local farm product. Peach producers in this area haven’t had a full crop in six or seven years, but this year is looking good. His trees need a chill at 30 to 40 degrees, the minimum temperature a peach tree needs to yield a good crop. If the blossoms don’t get “the chill” in a warm winter, they just fall off and don’t produce.
It’s a labor of love for him, as friends and family warned him to stay out of the business. His dad went broke farming, but he kept some acreage belonging to an uncle, and today that yields a great peach product for the local market. His children help out, but he is neither pushing nor pulling them toward farming. I met Juliet, his daughter, at their stand in Marion Square with other teenage helpers. He hires local workers, whereas the large farms like Titan rely on H-2A visa workers.
Juliet Shuler at Marion Square selling her dad’s peaches.
This year Chalmers Carr, owner of Titan, employed 750 of the temporary workers and has provided COVID-19 vaccines to them. Titan is the largest peach grower in the state with more than 6,200 acres and is another family-owned operation. Titan supplies Fields Farm Market on River Road on John’s Island. I spoke with Devonne Hammond, the manager, who was busy in the early morning putting those delicious peaches out as customers started arriving, headed to the peach bin. There are two types of peaches, both clingstone and freestone, depending on the season. Devonne says we are lazy if we don’t go for those clingstones, which require just a bit of work to free it from the stone. He gave me a taste test of a clingstone peach; peach juice was dripping in a very inelegant manner — but it was worth it!
Left: Sidi Limehouse of Rosebank Farms on Johns Island and his friend Benjamin Bonneau with their peaches. Right: Devonne Hammond, general manager of Fields Farm Market on River Road in Johns Island.
I also spent time with the venerable Sidi Limehouse; Louise Bennett, his lifelong partner; and his buddy Benjamin Bonneau. Ben and Sidi grew up on Mullet Hall on John’s Island and have maintained an 80-year friendship. Sidi operates Rosebank Farms on 60 acres of John’s Island and is a faithful land steward as founder and president of Friends of the Kiawah River. He gets his peaches from Elliott Shuler in four waves of production during the season. Sidi says the peaches start coming in small, then progress to a larger fruit. All taste wonderful but he likes the midseason peach. The variety, Red Globe, is our favorite at the market. Sidi reminds us to buy local! His farm stand on Betsy Kerrison is brimming with succulent peaches; trust me, I had many samples and took a bag with me.
How do you pick a good peach? Make sure it has a fuzzy exterior that yields to gentle pressure, and avoid any blemishes. The softer the sweeter. Yellow or cream is the preferred color with no green tint. And just because a peach has a red blush doesn’t mean it’s ripe! Take a sniff and it should smell like a peach. More than 100 natural chemicals contribute to that peach aroma, among them alcohols, ketones and aldehydes. Smell away!
If you get peaches that are not ripe yet, store them in a paper bag and try to wait one or two days for peak taste; otherwise, just leave them on the kitchen counter. If your peaches get past maturity, no worries. Freeze them and use for shakes, sauces or salsa later.
We love our peach desserts in the South, and every Southern cook has a recipe for the best peach pie. Another favorite, the peach cobbler, was introduced to Europe and the U.S. in the early 1800s. It is exactly what its name implies: “cobbled” from a peach pie recipe, a mix of fruit and dough cooked over an open fire. The pioneers favored the cobbler when fruit was available on the trail and kitchen ovens were not available. Nathalie Dupree, author of award-winning cookbooks, has graciously provided her peach cobbler recipe below.
Anthony Mirisciotta, general manager of GrowFoods, with their product.
Our restaurants in the Charleston area are always excited about peach season and how to present this summer fruit on menus. From the peach cobbler at High Cotton to the peach salad at Baker and Brewer to a peach added to your beer at Edmund’s Oast, we have many excellent choices. GrowFood Carolina provides many of the restaurants in town with those crazy good local peaches in addition to providing local farms with “the sales, marketing, logistics, warehousing and distribution functions” that had only been available to the big guys. I talked with Anthony Mirisciotta, GrowFood’s general manager, and he calls peach season “exciting.” Out of 120 growers selling product through GrowFood, only four or five supply peaches, and restaurants are calling before the peaches get in-house. They move 500 to 1,000 pounds a week to restaurants and grocery stores in the immediate area. Processors of jams and jellies await the peaches coming through GrowFood as well as brewers and ice cream makers. They see 50 different varieties during a season.
Have a peach today from a local farmer, and take a bite of Carolina sunshine.
After 25 years in the technology field, Kathleen Parramore earned an MSc in nutrition from University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and then a degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Tech. She is a writer, consultant and dinner party caterer in the Charleston area.
Nathalie Dupree’s Perfect Peach Cobbler
from Nathalie Dupree’s Southern Cooking, reprinted with permission
(Starred notes are Kathleen’s.)
1/2 cup butter (I use unsalted)
1 cup all-purpose soft-wheat flour*
1 1/2 teaspoons baking power
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
2 cups peaches, peeled and sliced, juices reserved
Preheat oven to 350°F. Put butter in a 9 x 13 ovenproof serving dish and place in the oven to melt.**
Mix together flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and stir in the milk and sugar to make a smooth batter. Remove the hot dish from the oven and pour in the batter.
Spoon the peaches and then the juices evenly over the batter.***
Place the dish back in the oven and bake until the batter is browned and has risen up and around the fruit, about 30-45 minutes.
Serve warm with ice cream (Blue Bell’s peach ice cream if you can find it!).
*Use White Lily Flour for best results. This is a true Southern soft winter-wheat flour. Ordinary all-purpose flour is a hard summer-wheat or blended flour. If you don't have access locally, you can order or find out where to purchase through White Lily Foods (www.whitelilyfoods.com). Otherwise, Natalie suggests in her book that you substitute one part all-purpose to one part cake flour for the soft-wheat flour she calls for in the recipe. I have used both White Lily and the substitution blend. The White Lily makes a lighter dessert, but both are good.
**Be sure to use a 9x13 Pyrex pan or the cobbler will overflow.
***If peaches were frozen, don’t add all of the juices or your cobbler will be soggy. Not a problem with fresh peaches, though.