A Taste of Summer
Arkansas’s Version of Fruit Candy
By Richard Ledbetter
I spent a good deal of my formative years on my grandparents’ farm, where Mamma had an Elberta peach tree in her yard. The sensation of eating unpeeled fruit right from the tree was like taking a little bite of heaven.
So when I decided to take up gentleman farming in 2008, I planted the requisite fruit trees standard for early Arkansas pioneers: apple, pear, fig and peach. The first of those I sought out was a Kim Elberta. Ten years later, that tree produces a nice batch of annual fruit that is just as delicious as my cherished memories.
To know when a peach is ripe, first take a sniff. It should smell sweetly fragrant. Also, a ripe peach shouldn’t be too firm to the touch. Varying peach varieties come to maturity at different times. The Kim Elberta is medium sized, red skinned with yellow streaking, reaching perfection in early June with a flavor that’s just as good fresh or canned.
Easy Peach Preserves
1) First pick, peel and slice fruit into a proper size cooking pot.
2) Proportion two to one fruit to sugar. I mixed half crystallized sugar with half confectioner’s sugar just for fun.
3) Cook at medium temperature until it comes to a gentle boil and remove from heat.
4) Wash and dry canning jars and lids beforehand. Place jars in shallow boiling water to sterilize and warm to approximately the same temperature as contents before filling.
5) Spoon in preserves and wipe clean the jar rims before setting metal lids in place. Finger-tighten the lid rims and set aside to cool.
Fordyce native and well-known tree-expert Roy Johnson said, “The fruit is normally borne on new growth. Pruning your trees in the fall will promote new branches. Fruit trees need sunshine up to six hours a day. Without it, the limbs will reach out searching for light and become so long and spindly they won’t support the weight of the fruit.” Peaches grow fast. When they double in size, they double in weight. To counteract branches becoming so overburdened that they snap off, I select and cut small elm saplings that are the proper length with a handy fork in one end to prop up and protect the drooping boughs from damage.
Johnson also mentioned, “Old folks used to think you needed to cultivate near the roots to aerate the tree once a year. You don’t think about oxygen to plants, but I guarantee it’s as important as water.”
Most fruit trees have been grafted, but one can also weigh down a low hanging, fruit producing limb to the soil with a rock or brick. It’ll sprout roots where it touches the earth. After a year, cut that limb off, pull up the new roots and replant it to as a whole other tree.
“I came upon an old log smoke house,” Johnson shared, “out in the middle of the woods that was mostly rotted down. I found some peach preserves that had been there fifty-years. They were still good and delicious. A big part of keeping that long was being stored at a constant temperature. Insulated logs under a spreading oak made all the difference across half-a-century.”
Johnson emphasized that, because everybody’s stove is different, one must keep an eye on in-progress canning. Otherwise, over cooking can cause the sugar mixture to turn to candy. Johnson mixes fruit and sugar by equal weights, not portions. Generally, one cup of fruit will weigh the same as half a cup of sugar.
Johnson grinned as he concluded, “You know you’ve done it right when you hear the lids snap down.”