Louis XVIII is a monarch you don’t hear much about, France’s last and perhaps fattest. He lived for a while at Hartwell House, was too overweight to walk, and had a predegustator who doubled as librarian of his 11,000 books. This chap’s job was, among other things, to pass fruit as acceptable for his majesty.
My authority, Edward Bunyard (d. 1939, pomologist and epicure) relates how everything stopped when Christophe, the gardener, knocked at the library door with a new variety of peach. Petit-Radel, the predegustator, waited while Christophe, with his ivory knife, cut the fruit in four. The first quarter he judged for its juice; the second for its flesh, the third for its aroma and the last for its harmony.
Bunyard, in his Anatomy of Dessert, came down in favour of the nectarine over the peach, on grounds of both its flavour and its smooth skin, though with some reservations about texture: less buttery, more fibrous than the peach. He cites fourteen varieties, and twenty of peaches (La Quintinie, Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles, listed thirty-three). Since then breeders have selected and bred scores more. Rivers of Sawbridgeworth, for example, offered a whole aviary of peaches with bird-names: Kestrel, Goshawk, Sea Eagle, Peregrine… Apples and pears have been bred in hundreds. Where are they all?
The RHS has given an AGM to a mere five (the nectarines are ‘Lord Napier’ and ‘Early Rivers’, the peaches ‘Duke of York’, ‘Peregrine’ and ‘Rochester’). Look for the name of the variety in a supermarket: the country of origin is usually all we’re told. The truth is we don’t have librarians who predegust or gardeners knocking at their doors. The supermarket buyer predegusts, or certainly should, but is more concerned with price and shelf-life. If a pear needs an alarm clock to announce its fifteen minutes of perfection you won’t find it at Waitrose.
What you do find these days is flat peaches – a happy sport of the ancient fruit that suits both shops and customer (and even waiters: they don’t roll off the plate). Flat peaches grow on the branch face to face, like headphones – another of Chinese nature’s endless repertory of brainwaves. Their flesh is as sweet and juicy as any peach (so juicy there is apparently one variety you can drink with a straw; Louis XVIII would be in raptures). They pack perfectly, tighter than round fruit, to please the carrier. There is even, so I read, a nectarine or fuzz-free kind, though not yet at Waitrose in Kensington. Its name is Mésembrine. My father used to call peach-fuzz ‘goobra feathers’. He wasn’t in favour: definitely a nectarine man. What advance can we hope for next, since we’re doing so well?
The hardest peach to find in a shop is the pêche des vignes, the profusely juicy red-fleshed kind that ripens as late as the grapes in the vineyards where you usually find it planted. It gives the vigneron, they say, an early warning of mildew in the air. You need a bath after eating them, but if by some miracle a flat and fuzz-free sport appeared I’d certainly have a word with Waitrose.