The small fruit with a big flavour
More than 250 crops are grown in California's Central Valley, including some of the world's tastiest peaches. But several years of drought have left the farmers facing an uncertain future.
I have never tasted such a peach in my life. Two peaches, actually, but I will come to that in a moment. This one glows yellow in the shade where the fruit is being packed into crates. The familiar furry skin, but one bite into it is enough to produce a revelation. The cool, succulent flesh, the depth of flavour, the precise balance of sweetness and acidity achieved by the devoted nurture of Mas Masumoto and his family.
They run a small farm in the middle of one of the most productive places on earth - California's Central Valley. Mile after mile of farms on the relentlessly flat valley bottom, growing a big percentage of America's crops such as almonds, pistachios, oranges, cotton, tomatoes, garlic and asparagus.
Mas Masumoto's father was a Japanese immigrant interned by the US authorities during World War Two. When he was released, he managed to buy the farm because it was cheap - it was poor soil. The Masumotos had to break up the hardpan just below the surface, often using explosives.
But when the ground was prepared, it became wonderfully productive - summers of searing heat irrigated by water brought down from the melting snow of the High Sierra mountains. Yosemite National Park is not very far away. Perfect Mediterranean growing conditions that exist in few other places in the world.
Masumoto helped his father plant some of the trees which are still producing the wonderful peaches I sampled. They're a breed called Suncrest, and over the years, they went out of fashion with the picky supermarket consumers who wanted red blushing fruit, not the yellow glow of the Suncrest. Things got so bad that one harvest in the 1980s was shunned by the buyers. Thousands of dollars-worth of fruit languished in the cold store.
So Masumoto summoned the bulldozers to uproot his trees, and wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times, bemoaning the fact that - as he put it - flavour was being lost along with meaning. Letters of support for his old-fashioned ways started coming in. Inspired by this, when the bulldozers arrived, Masumoto sent them away.
He won the support of the celebrated restaurateur Alice Waters, a campaigner for locally produced food. She served the peaches in her acclaimed restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, near San Francisco. The farm became famous. And they still grow those yellow peaches, as I discovered - so deliciously - the other day.
But now the abundance of the hugely productive Californian Central Valley is under threat. The state is in the fourth year of damaging drought.
Last winter hardly any snow fell on the High Sierra mountains, whose snowmelt normally feeds the rivers and elaborate canal system that enables the valley to flourish. Farmers got none of their normal allowance of this surface water.
They can either pay a high price for other people's still-available water, or use their own well water from underground aquifers. There's a race to dig new, deeper, very expensive wells. The lack of winter moisture from the hills means that the shallow aquifers are not getting their annual top-up. Deep wells are bringing up deep water that may have been stored underground decades ago, or even longer. Historic water. California is sucking itself dry.
Nobody knows how long the drought will last. Up in the Sequoia National Forest, there are giant cut-down trees, 2000 years old or more, with ring patterns showing that previous droughts have gone on as long as a century.
Under such conditions, of course, agriculture in the valley would not be viable. Mas Masumoto is fortunate - his groundwater comes from his currently abundant aquifer, but like many farmers, he is embarking on new tactics to save now-expensive water.
One third of the valley's less productive acreage is now lying fallow. A succession of brown bare fields are the most familiar evidence of the drought as you drive across the area in the nearly 40C heat.
Masumoto is a Buddhist - and that means he thinks differently about nature and growing things. He and his daughter are deliberately switching off the water to his now-celebrated peaches some time before they are ready for harvesting. The results are beautiful. Glowing fruits, a quarter smaller than their much-watered counterparts. They seem to be equally flavoursome, but buyers appear to be addicted to the red, blushing fruit. The yellow peach I tried - straight after the big one - was, well, delicious.
But the drought may produce more than just downsizing. How long the abundance of the Central Valley can continue is something that nobody knows.
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