Donut-shaped peaches are becoming a novelty snack

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Some people who grew up on big round peaches are developing a taste for a variety that looks like it's been squashed by a dictionary.

Saturn peaches -- small, flat versions of the old summer staple -- are just starting to catch on in Pennsylvania, and the few fruit stands that carry the variety are having trouble keeping them in stock.

"That's one of the good things about them, is that they sell so quickly. You never have to worry about storing them," said Kay Hollabaugh of Hollabaugh Bros. Inc. Fruit Farm and Market. "They really sell themselves because they're so unique."

Flat peaches have been harvested in Asia for hundreds of years, and some varieties were grown in New York orchards as early as the 1820s. Current flat peach varieties in the United States are descendants of the Chinese peento peach, brought to the United States in 1869.

But only in the last several years have flat peaches been introduced to wide audiences in the United States. Hollabaughs planted their first seedlings in 2001, and sold their first full crop last season.

Diebold Orchards in Benton, Mo., tested flat peaches about 15 years ago, but determined that it wasn't a better alternative than round peaches.

Pioneer Orchard in Jackson also does not grow the flat peaches.

Frieda's Inc., a California-based specialty fruit company often credited with introducing Americans to kiwi fruit, may also get credit for popularizing flat peaches. They first rolled out Donut peaches in the mid-1980s and now provide them to supermarkets across the country.

Flat peaches currently on the market -- specific varieties include the Donut, Saturn, Jupiter and Galaxy -- are all white peaches, with a softer flesh, less acid and more sugar than traditional yellow peaches. That gives them a sweeter, more delicate flavor than the bolder, more acidic yellow peaches.

"With our grocery stores so plastered with so many kinds of produce of all sorts, it's hard to compete. This is something that really grabs people," Hollabaugh said. "People are enamored of their appearance, and once they try them, they're hooked."

But unlike the white-peach craze that took off a few years back, prompting some farmers to plant almost half of their peach acreage in whites, flat peaches remain a niche market.

"It's a novelty right now," said John Lott, of Bear Mountain Orchards in Aspers. "Do we sell a lot of them? No. But everyone's taking one or two, see what they're like. But it seems like people like them, and when they like them they'll keep eating them."

David Diebold of Benton said one reason the novelty peach did not work for his orchard is the cost involved.

"You'd have to get premium prices for them," Diebold said. "Because the yield is so much less than a normal peach, you'd have to get double the price."

Even though local orchards are not growing the flat peaches, there is a banner crop of peaches this year.

Diana Beggs, of Pioneer Orchard, said that customers have remarked about the sweetness of this year's peaches, which is due to the hot, dry weather.

"They can handle it better than we can," Beggs said laughing.

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