You are out hiking in Minnewaska on a hot summer day in late July. The temperature is right about 90 degrees, and you find some shade, looking down at the lake where the frogs are jumping and the long-distance swimmers are negotiating the cold water. You sit down and pull out the peach that you bought from nearby Jenkins and Lueken Orchards. As you bite through the creamy yellow skin with a hint of reddish-brown, the peach juice explodes, running down your chin and fingers. The meat inside is almost gold and tastes sweet and tart. And once again you bite into your fragrant, fuzzy peach, in return for more juice. Life is pretty sweet.
In winter you are at the grocery store. You pass by a free stand in the produce section where you see…peaches. You pick one up, squeeze it, and it gives a little under pressure from your fingers. Yes! It is ripe. You notice the PLU sticker – the little sticker with the bar code: “Chile.”
How is it that a grocery store can get fresh, ripe fruit from Chile in the winter? Timing and processing (shipping and handling), as well a number of other important interdependent components determine whether that peach arrives in that stand as ripe, overripe or bruised.
Winter fruits and vegetables are manipulated to arrive at the “exact peak of ripeness.” This manipulation involves introducing heat, gas or oxygen into the fruit’s environment, or chilling and purging gas or oxygen. It is done all the time. Without it, you don’t get fresh fruits, except for in summer and fall. Here is how it all works:
First we need to define “ripe,” “mature” and a quality piece of fruit. Fruits are picked according to ripeness and maturity. Once a fruit is picked, it stops maturing. Yet once picked, you can continue, delay or stop further ripening.
Most dictionaries define “ripe” using the word “mature,” and define “mature” by using the word “ripe”: clear as mud. So to understand it better, I called Dr. Andrew Clark in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri. According to Dr. Clark, maturity suggests the stage of life of the fruit. “You obviously won’t get a tree from planting an immature fruit…mature things are better developed, and so they taste better. Ripeness, on the other hand, depends on the development of sugars, esters, fats and oils, and can be influenced by external factors which can be introduced, such as heat, ethylene or oxygen.”