Innovation, Production and Preservation; In One Big Fruit
Spanish 'paraguayos' are in big demad on the export market. ©Fruit Ponents.
Fragrant, sweet and juicy, Spanish peaches have dominated the global export market since 2005. The world’s third largest producer of these stone fruits, Spain also rules in terms of variety, research and innovation, making it no surprise that this is the most cultivated, produced and preserved ‘sweet’ fruit in Spain.
Peach fuzz, peaches and cream, peachy keen, you’re a peach... There seems to be no end to the phrases that equate this fragrant fruit with all that is good. But where does this love for peaches come from? Perhaps it’s the fact that these delectable fruits are synonymous with the long days of summer. Maybe it’s because they’re very low in calories, while boasting high levels of phytochemicals that act as antioxidants, as well as fiber, vitamins and minerals – all of which promote good health. Or maybe it’s because the fruit of the Prunus persica species offers something for everyone, and the classic peaches and nectarines are only the beginning of a wide range of related ‘stone’ fruits.
Originally from China and brought to Europe along the famed Silk Road during Roman times, the peach family includes fuzzy peaches, as well as smooth-skinned nectarines, and their flattened versions known in Spain as paraguayos and platerinas, the latter two of which are almost exclusively cultivated large-scale in this country. Grown here for centuries, Spanish explorers were responsible for bringing peaches to the New World in the 15th century.
In Spain, this traditional crop took root in home-gardens across the country, and adapted particularly well to certain regions of Catalonia, Aragón and Murcia, which in 2010 accounted for 70% of all peach plantations in Spain. These areas are ideally suited to the cultivation of this fruit, which thrives in dry climates with hot summers and low winter temperatures (more than 700 hours at -7°C/19°F). During the last two decades, Spanish peach production has multiplied threefold and, according to data provided by AfruCAT, the professional association of fruit growers in Catalonia, peach production for 2012 will reach 1,168,030 tons of cultivated on approximately 78,000 hectares / 192,742 acres of land.
This dramatic increase can be attributed mainly to Spain’s overwhelming dedication to varietal innovation, an extremely important aspect of this business given that between 1990 and 2001 there were 1,092 registered varieties of peaches in the world. In Spain, the most typical variety has historically been the yellow Pavía Clingstone (the pit adheres to the pulp) peaches that are still common to traditional production areas in Murcia and Aragón.
However, the development and introduction of new varieties with diverse characteristics have made it possible to expand cultivation areas and production calendars, and improve technology with regards to production and post-harvest handling of these delicate fruits, which appeal to a whole range of consumer tastes. In recent years, this has resulted in a drop in Pavía production, replaced largely by the red-fleshed peaches and nectarines that are in big demand on the export market.
Variety in Lleida
I was able to witness this varietal revolution firsthand during a recent trip to the province of Lleida, which accounts for 82% of Catalonia’s fresh fruit production and most of its 397,730 tons of peaches. The summer sun here is constant and unforgiving, and the landscape is an expanse of heavily laden fruit trees of all kinds, making it is easy to see why this area is considered the heart of the Spanish peach industry. It’s no wonder that Lleida hosts the annual International Peach Forum, during which hundreds of peach experts from around the world congregate here to ruminate on the state of the market.
My visit to this area was organized by Dr. Ignasi Iglesias of Catalonia’s Research & Technology Food & Agriculture Institute (IRTA), who has more than twenty years of experience in the Spanish fresh fruit industry. An extremely charismatic man, Ignasi currently leads the project that has the dual purpose of testing hundreds of varieties of peaches from all over the world to see how they respond to the climate and conditions in Lleida, and developing new varieties suited to the needs of Spanish producers.
His passion for this project is contagious, and as he explained while we bumped along a country road in route to the research plantation, varietal expansion is key to Spain’s dominance over the export market. As we walked through the vast orchard, every few trees bore dramatically different colors of fruit: deep reddish orange, blushing pink, purple, white. Knife in hand, Ignasi presented me with slices of different sizes, shapes and colors of peaches, nectarines, paraguayos and platerinas. It was easy to compare the varieties and taste varying degrees of sweetness and acidity.
This was the first time that I had seen the flattened, smooth-skinned platerinas, which are undoubtedly poised to follow in the footsteps of their counterparts, the fuzzy paraguayos.
According to Ignasi, the success of the paraguayo both in Spain and abroad is due to the fact that, “consumers automatically associate its shape with being sweet.” Their popularity justifies the risk taken by Spanish farmers several years ago in growing these varieties, which are more delicate to cultivate and handle. Hence, both are almost exclusively grown in Spain, and global markets claim 60% of paraguayo and 50% of platerina production for export. To keep up with the growing demand, paraguayo production in Spain has doubled between 2008 and 2010, with a large part of it centered in Murcia.
A great place to see this global disbursement in action was at nearby Fruits de Ponent. This second-tier cooperative processes approximately 68,000 tons of peaches a year, of which 70% are sent abroad. In 2010, fully half of all Spanish peach production was exported, primarily to Germany, France, Holland and Poland. Other popular destinations include Eastern European countries like Russia, whose consumers have developed a taste for paraguayos.
I was lucky to get a few minutes with Technical Director Pere Cabiscol, who was engulfed in the madness of peach season at its height. He explained that the fruits produced in Lleida and the fertile Ebro Valley basin (including parts of La Rioja, Navarre and Aragón) have a special quality with regard to their color, consistency, sugar content and aroma. For him, the ideal peach is expressed by its “crack!”, the slight crunching sound it makes when you bite into it.
Valley in bloom
Although Catalonia rules in terms of production and innovation, both Aragón and Murcia have longstanding traditions of peach production, and have a significant role in defining the Spanish peach market. 144,000 tons of peaches were produced in Murcia last year, of which the majority was Pavía. One of the most traditional cultivation areas is the beautiful and hilly Cieza Valley, a place so given over to its peach production that it hosts an annual springtime festival to celebrate the delicate pink peach blossoms that carpet the valley walls.
This event includes a variety of different walking and rafting (on the Segura River) routes, concerts, markets, theater, tapas tours, and guided visits to different local landmarks. Another important aspect unfolds in local restaurants, which prepare special menus featuring peaches served in dishes like Cieza peach soufflé with vanilla cream (Club de Tenis), Ibérico pork with peach sauce (El Ginete), and Pork cheek medallion with green asparagus and peaches with Port (Tarradellas). Additionally, two of the area’s most famous desserts, peach ice cream and peaches in wine, still follow the original nineteenth-century recipes.
This area cultivates several pavía peach varieties, which span the production calendar from mid May to mid August. These medium-sized peaches are yellow-orange in color and characterized by their thin, velvety skin, intense aroma, ample sweetness and slightly crunchy yellow pulp.
Aragon’s peach production is also significant. In fact, the combined production totals of the neighboring fruit bearing regions of Aragón, Navarra and La Rioja (at 395,583 tons) almost equal that of Catalonia. However, this area’s true fame comes from the small pockets of traditional cultivation that have long defined its peach production. The most famous of these is undoubtedly the Melocotones de Calanda (Peaches from Calanda). This sweet and meaty Amarillo Tardío variety of peaches is so valued for its smaller size, aroma, crunchiness and creamy yellow tone, that it is protected by a Designation of Origin.
The peaches of this late harvest variety are individually wrapped in paraffin coated paper bags in the summer while still on the tree, to protect them from disease or abrupt climatic shifts. In addition to being eaten fresh, these special fruits are often preserved in syrup or wine, while retaining their Designation of Origin status. Both the fresh and preserved versions of these famed peaches are slowly gaining their share of the export market.
Of course canning peaches is nothing new in this country. Besides being made into juice and eaten fresh in all kinds of sweet and savory dishes all over Spain, peaches are the most preserved of this country’s fruits, annually yielding around 100,000 tons of peach preserves.
Adrienne Smith is a sommelier, chef and freelance writer. She has spent the last decade eating and drinking her way through Spain.