Delaware’s peach history hasn’t been a bed of roses

July 14, 2023

Peach season is in high gear a little bit earlier than the more typical mid-August. From wooden crates at Lloyd’s labeled “Delaware Peaches” to Bennett Orchards’ signature orange baskets to Fifer Orchards’ farm stands, this is prime time for those golden-orange beauties. The peach picture is quite rosy these days, but in previous centuries, the peach industry took some twists and turns during its Delaware history.

Before the arrival of European settlers, wild peach trees were largely ignored as a source of food in this area. During the 1700s, peaches were used as animal feed for pigs, and some clever distillers recognized their value as an ingredient to flavor brandy. It wasn’t until 1832 that the first peach orchard was planted in Kent County. Isaac Reeves used a propagation technique of grafting budded stock that ensured all the fruit would be the same variety.

At that time, laborers would pick the fruit, which was transported to northern markets by boat. Within 10 years, the railroads provided another mode to move peaches more swiftly to market. Hundreds of acres in Kent and Sussex counties became dedicated to peach orchards, and canneries proliferated across the state to add canned and dried peaches to supplement the fresh fruit. In 1895, Delaware was reported to have grown more peaches than anywhere else in the world.

In the 1890s, Delaware’s inventory of peach trees was close to 4 million. During this time, a mysterious disease called “peach yellows” struck the crop, reducing the number of trees to barely 300,000 by 1940. Farmers reacted by  repurposing their fields to grow apples and strawberries after the loss of their peach crop. Nonetheless, in 1895, the Delaware General Assembly named the peach blossom the state’s official flower.

Most of the Delaware farms that grow peaches today are smaller versions of the larger enterprises that grew peaches exclusively in the early 20th century. We look forward to the summer months when peaches from growers like Bennett Orchards, Fifer Orchards, and T.S. Smith are brought to market. Thanks to an enthusiastic group of fifth- and sixth-graders from Dover, peach pie was designated the state’s official dessert in 2009 (see the official recipe below).

Peaches can be found in two different varieties: clingstone and freestone, both terms describing how the flesh and pit are arranged. In clingstone, the pit is deeply embedded in the flesh of the fruit, while the pit in a freestone peach is detached from the flesh and readily removed. When making peach pie, I prefer to use freestone, as they allow the preparation go more swiftly.

For the open-faced peach sandwich in the photo, focaccia is topped with baby arugula, mozzarella cheese and sliced peaches. To include more flavors, we selected a rosemary-infused focaccia and dressed the arugula with a light vinaigrette. You can make the peaches softer by grilling them first, but these were so tender, it wasn’t necessary. To add salty notes, include a layer of thinly sliced prosciutto; for sweetness, try fig jam.

Another way to feature peaches in a more savory dish is with the salad recipe that tosses together garbanzo beans and toasted pita bread, and adds bright lemon notes. It is a perfect way to feature fresh, local peaches in season.

Peach Pie

3 C flour
1 t salt
1 C Crisco
1 beaten egg
cold water
6 C peeled, pitted and thinly sliced peaches
3/4 C sugar
1 T lemon juice
3 T flour

Mix flour and salt together, and cut in Crisco with a fork or pastry blender until it is the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Whisk the egg in a measuring cup, adding enough water to make 1/2 C. Add to the flour and mix well with a fork. Form into a ball. Divide the dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for 10 to 20 minutes. Roll out to form circles. Line a 9-inch pie pan with one crust and reserve the other for the top. Preheat oven to 375 F. Mix together peaches, sugar, lemon juice and flour; pour into crust-lined pie pan. Place the reserved crust over the filling; seal and flute the edge with your fingers. Place the pie on a foil-lined cookie sheet, and cover edges of crust with foil. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove foil from edges and bake an additional 20 minutes.

Open-faced Peach Sandwich

1 loaf herb focaccia
2 T olive oil
2 T rice wine vinegar
1 t seasoned salt
2 C arugula
8 oz mozzarella, sliced
2 peaches, sliced into wedges

Cut focaccia into 12 squares; set in a single layer on a serving platter. Whisk together oil and vinegar; stir in salt. Add arugula and toss to combine thoroughly. Arrange arugula on top of each piece of focaccia. Place mozzarella slices on arugula and arrange peach slices on top.

Peach & Pita Salad

3 small pita loaves
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt & pepper
1 shallot
1 lemon
1 grated garlic clove
1 t honey
3 T olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
2/3 C packed chopped parsley
1/2 C packed chopped mint leaves
2 ripe yellow peaches, sliced into wedges
2 ripe red or black plums, sliced into wedges
2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2/3 C sliced cucumber
2/3 C thinly sliced radishes
salt & pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F. Split pitas in half and tear into 1-inch pieces. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread pita pieces in a single layer, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Pick up foil by the corners and shake gently to toss and coat the bread pieces. Bake until deeply golden brown and crispy, about 10 to 15 minutes. Halve the shallot through the root end and peel. Mince one of the halves and add it to a large bowl; reserve other half. Slice half of the lemon into rounds and remove the seeds. Chop finely (including pith and peel); add to the bowl with minced shallot. Slice remaining lemon half into wedges and place on a small serving plate. Add grated garlic and honey to bowl with lemon and shallot. Stir to combine, then whisk in olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Thinly slice the remaining half shallot and add to bowl. Add most of the chopped parsley and mint, reserving some for garnish. Add sliced peaches, plums, chickpeas, cucumbers, radishes and all but a handful of the pita chips to the bowl; toss to combine. Transfer the salad to a large serving platter. Top with reserved pita chips, mint and parsley. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Serve immediately, with reserved lemon wedges for juicing over the salad.


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