Coming Soon to the Farmers' Market: "The Peach of Immortality"

This succulent peach won't be around for long

When approaching a ripe donut peach, one must temper lust with mindful restraint. First, assume a wide stance, slightly flexing your knees to maintain balance. Then gently grasp the saucer-shaped fruit with your thumb and middle finger, careful not to squeeze too tightly. Thrust your head forward, eyes closed, chin out, mouth open and prepare to swoon.

That first bite will release a wave of sugary goodness slobbering down your chin and, you hope, not on your Tommy Bahama camp shirt or Eileen Fisher cami. Spritzing is always a danger. Envious friends and family who have leaned in to take a close look may get a sudden jet of peach juice to the face.

They too may fall to the ground, writhing in pleasure.

“It’s a fruit you would have expected in the Garden of Eden,” says a close friend who shall remain nameless to protect her professional
reputation. “It’s fleshy and practically obscene with sticky sweet, dripping juices. If I were Eve, I would have tempted Adam with a donut peach.”

Psst. I can get you some.

Don’t tell anyone else, but two longtime vendors at the Dane County Farmers’ Market—Jim Barnard of Door County Fruit Markets and Tom Krall of Deerfield Greenhouse—offer donut peaches. Look for them in early August. (Barnard’s stand is on Pinckney Street, Krall’s on Main Street.) But be quick, because they’re a transitory pleasure, gone before Labor Day.

Aficionados know the drill. “As soon as I open the door of the truck, they’re asking about them,” says Krall, whose main business is bedding plants and peppers. He only has a dozen or so trees. “By daybreak, the donut peaches are usually gone.”

Barnard, who specializes in fruit (notably, Door County sweet cherries), sees those same peach lovers. “They’re waiting on the benches even before we set up. They know from experience if they come at ten all they’ll get is our regular peaches.”

The uncommonness of donut peaches adds to their allure. Their origin traces to China where peaches have been grown for four thousand years. Donut cultivars are also known as peentao, peento or pantao peaches. Or commonly as saucer peaches.

They’ve been grown in the U.S. with mixed success since the mid-nineteenth century, but began to gain traction in the 1980s when the venerable Stark Bro’s nursery in Missouri patented a new winter-hardy, disease-resistant variety called Saturn. As the patent application puts it, the Saturn has flesh that is “fine, tender and melting.”

Barnard has four hundred-plus donut trees and expects a boom year. He also grows regular peaches—Red Havens—and speaks highly of their yellow flesh and ease of picking. “But they don’t compare,” confides Barnard, whose family orchard dates to 1929. “The Saturn peach is completely different. The skin is very tender; the stem is more or less recessed into the peach. They’re a nightmare to pick because the stem tends to tear the flesh.”

Krall feels his pain. “Peaches are tricky,” he says. “You can go from green to dead ripe in a day or two, depending on the weather. What you want is a tree- ripened peach—that’s when they’re really the best. You only have a day or two to sell them, because they’re not going to last.”

You can find donut peaches seasonally at Whole Foods and the Willy Street Co-op, but they’ve been picked green in California or Washington and are harder than the tree-ripened delights to be found locally.

“We try to pick them ripe as possible,” says Barnard. “We call it ‘firm ripe’—firm enough to pick but ripe enough to eat off the tree.” Ripe donut peaches don’t last long, he admits—only a few days before they go soft and start bruising. But that’s seldom a problem, because “they’re so sweet and wonderful that they’re going to be eaten before they make it home anyway.”

That’s an old, old story.

I was in New York, looking at the photography of avant-garde Beijing artist Wang Qingsong, when I happened across an ancient folk tale about the magical power of donut peaches. According to Daoist legend, every three thousand years a special peach tree bears fruit, prompting the Queen Mother of the West to throw an extravagant banquet featuring the “pantao peach of immortality.” One bite guarantees eternal life.

But who could stop at one bite? Better to take two or three and surrender to the ecstasy of the moment. Better yet, there’s no need to wait three thousand years. The peach of immortality awaits you right here in Madison for a few short, sweet weeks.

Marc Eisen is former editor of Isthmus and a Madison-based freelance writer.

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