It's seven o'clock on an August morning at the famed Masumoto Family Farm in Del Rey, California, just outside of Fresno. After a three-hour drive, chef Stuart Brioza and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski of San Francisco's Rubicon restaurant are circling two trees, each weighted down with about 500 pounds of Elberta peaches. The couple bought the fruit as part of the farm's adopt-a-peach-tree program, started by the Masumoto family in 2005. Brioza (an F&W Best New Chef 2003) has not eaten a peach all year, waiting patiently for his own fruit to ripen. Today is the first day of the harvest.
"For many Californians age 50 and older, the Elberta is the peach of their memories," says David Mas Masumoto, the farmer and author of Epitaph for a Peach. Hoping to appeal to that fondness for Elbertas, a late-season heirloom variety with a rosy skin and succulent, bright-orange flesh, the Masumotos planted 50 Elberta peach trees in 2001. But when the fruit bruised too easily to sell commercially, the Masumotos decided to put the trees up for adoption, charging $500 per tree. Prospective "parents" must apply for the privilege—and not everyone is accepted. "We don't want people to think they can pay us some money and we give them peaches," Masumoto says. "We take our work very seriously, and we want to share that with adoptive families." Throughout the year, Masumoto e-mails parents with photos and updates on growing conditions. In late July or early August, as the fruit ripens, Masumoto chooses two consecutive Saturdays when the families can come harvest.
Today, about 200 people have gathered at the farm. The families divide into pickers and packers—those who climb the orchard's stepladders to get to the fruit, and those who nestle the peaches into cardboard boxes. The teams break in shifts for a peach-laden brunch prepared by the Masumotos and some volunteers, with pastries provided by Los Angeles's City Bakery. At harvest's end, Rubicon's chefs will have amassed 100 boxes of peaches, which they will use at the restaurant.
The abundance all but transforms their cooking. "For two weeks, the peaches dictate," Brioza declares. "I might not normally serve peaches with duck," he says of his cumin-scented duck breasts with peach succotash, "but I chose the duck because its fattiness is a nice complement to the sweet, tart fruit." For the succotash, Brioza sautés firm peaches with diced red bell peppers. He picks softer peaches for his twist on prosciutto and melon, in which he wraps thin slices of pancetta around sweet, ripe peach wedges and fresh basil, sears them, then gives them a splash of tangy aged balsamic.
For dessert, Krasinski doesn't even need to cook the fragrant Elbertas. Instead, she tops them with cornmeal-flecked crêpes and drizzles them with a brown sugar– caramel sauce spiked with sherry vinegar.
Krasinski would love to can some of the Elbertas to sustain Rubicon through the year, but she and Brioza go through all 1,000 pounds in two weeks. "I'm ready for the next thing," Brioza says. What will that be? "Tomatoes."
Carolynn Carreño is co-author of Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, due out this fall.