Peaches can’t talk, but they still have their messages
Picked straight from the tree at summer’s end with the hum of insects heavy in the air, your peach should be sun-warmed and weighty.
When you heft it in the palm of your hand it is like cupping a breast or a buttock. Its very shape is suggestive – golden curves with a subtle cleavage dividing its swelling contours.
Under the humid, downy skin, golden flesh oozes with juice. You cannot eat a good peach neatly. It smears, it drips, it wets your chin and, like a larrikin lover, leaves you disheveled and undone.
At eating’s end, all that’s left is the wizened stone. An ugly critter, its surface crinkled like a brain, it contains all the information needs to become a new tree, given the right soil, water and nutrition.
My favourite peaches are Golden Queens. They grow juicy yet firm, which means you can cut them into sharp-edged chunks as you can with an apple. It meant that in times gone by, when women preserved their own fruit, Golden Queens were the peach of choice.
When I was small, mothers up and down our street would buy wooden crates of peaches and, at the fag-end of summer when heat and humidity reached peak levels, they would steel themselves for ‘bottling day’.
First, get your glass jars
Agee glass jars, plus their metal lids and rings, had to be sterilised by boiling or baking in a hot oven. Meanwhile, the peaches were peeled and sliced and immersed in a seething water-and-sugar syrup to be cooked until soft. And then came the horrid business of ladling the searing fruit into the jars without burning your fingers, spilling any spoonfuls or smashing a jar on the floor.
I can see my mother now, in her juice-stained apron, sweating and cross as she laboured in the fragrant steam. I would get bored and whiny and she would shoo me away. Sometimes I peeled and cut the raw fruit, but after that she wouldn’t let me help with the scalding, sweet brew. ‘No, it’s burny hot!’ she’d say.
After each jar was filled she would wipe off smears with a damp cloth before the drips went hard and unsightly, and to stop any sticky residue from becoming a lure for ants.
By now the whole house was bathed with the scent of sugared peaches. And slowly the jars would line up along the kitchen bench, glowing and golden, slow bubbles rising up through the fruit as it settled. Domed metal tops went on with their rubber seals, with rings screwed down to keep them tight.
And then, over the next hours, as the jars cooled, you heard the tiny, ringing snaps as the convex lids sucked in and became concave, the sign that you had a good seal and the preserves would stay sweet and fine right through winter.
The next day, some of the domes would still be protruding and you could go along the line, tapping the tops with a fingernail in the hope of hearing the sound of the lid finally sealing down with a satisfying little crack.
See, peaches can talk after all
Even today, after I’ve opened a jar of any sauce or jam from the supermarket, I quite like touching any little domes I find on lids, just to re-feel that sensation from childhood.
It reminds me of those special domestic skills, rather lost now. They were little valued back in the day when most housewives were expected to stack the shelves with preserves. Then it was just a hot, tiresome chore.
Now, there are signs of a modern renewal as new generations spurn supermarket brands to have a go at doing what their grandmothers did. Few are keen to fill jars by the dozen, but home-made preserves, jam or relish make magnificent gifts.
Always, a jar of peaches reminds me of my mum – not always at her best. Sometimes those hot days in the kitchen brought out her frustrated, snarly, snappy worst.
It was only as a grownup that I began to understand that as she stood there peeling peaches into newspaper, shoe soles sticking to sugar splashes on the lino floor, deep inside she wanted, oh, so much more out of life.