If you’ve ever been anywhere near my and Paula’s home state, you know we have an obsession with peaches. Though not native to Georgia, our blushing icon has been growing here since Spanish monks first planted them in the late sixteenth century, and today you just about can’t sling a cat in Georgia without hitting at least a picture of one.
Probably no place in the state has a deeper connection with this fruit than Fort Valley, not far from where Paula cut her teeth on peaches and said her first “y’all.” The land around there just seems to be uniquely made for them.
The French call this “terroir,”—and no, it’s not a war tactic. Derived from a word for “land,” it means a lot more than just dirt: it’s the deep interconnection between an environment and its produce—like the hints of the lavender and herbs of Provence that are found in that region’s wines, or the unique white mold that covers Brie.
A big part of terroir is the idea that some places are uniquely suited to a particular thing. The Fort Valley region of southeastern Georgia is just such a place for peaches. Though no longer the leading producer that it once was, it still nurtures some of the finest peaches in the country, and holds fast to its reputation as peach heaven.
And that, in case you were wondering, is why rosy-cheeked peaches adorn every welcome sign, license plate, and lottery ticket in the state, and why no Georgian could imagine going through a summer without eating at least one ripe local peach. Here’s one of my own favorite ways of having them, adapted from The Savannah Cookbook.
10 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces (½ cup or 1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small bits
2 tablespoons chilled lard or vegetable shortening
About ½ cup ice water
Cinnamon Sugar (recipe follows)
6 to 8 ripe freestone peaches
Whole nutmeg in a grater
3 tablespoons peach or apricot jam forced through a wire mesh strainer
Vanilla, caramel, or ginger ice cream, optional
Whisk or sift together the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, and salt. Add the butter and lard and cut it in with a pastry blender until it resembles coarse meal. Add about 1/3 cup of ice water and work it in. Keep adding water by spoonfuls until the dough is just holding together. Gather it into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and chill 20 minutes.
Note: the pastry can be made in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Chill the blade 5 minutes, then fit it in the work bowl. Add the flour, sugar, and salt and pulse to sift. Add the fat and process until it resembles coarse meal. Pulse in the water a little at a time, starting with 1/3 cup, until it is holding together. Wrap and chill as in the hand method.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375° F. Line a 12-inch round tart pan with the dough, pressing it into the sides without stretching it. Prick well with a fork, and chill it for 20-30 minutes. Line with buttered foil (buttered side down), fill with pie weights or dried beans, and bake 20 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and weights and bake 8-to-10 minutes more, or until just beginning to color. Sprinkle the bottom with cinnamon sugar and let it cool while preparing the peaches.
Peel the peaches, halve, pit, and slice them into thick wedges. Arrange top of the crust in a single layer, slightly overlapping, in concentric circles. Sprinkle well with cinnamon sugar and a generously grating of nutmeg.
Bake until the peaches are tender and the crust golden brown, about 40 minutes. Melt the jam with the remaining sugar over medium-low heat and simmer 3 to 5 minutes. Let the tart cool slightly and brush it generously with glaze. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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