At this time in July, South Carolina usually is smack-dab in the middle of its 18-week peach season. But this year, we’re already into the homestretch. Once again the culprit is warm weather that jumped nature’s gun.

Peachy keen trivia

Clingstone vs. freestone peaches: Peaches are a ”stone” fruit, referring to the pit. If the flesh sticks to the stone when cut, it’s a clingstone. If the pit separates easily or falls out from the surrounding flesh, it’s a freestone. Freestones are more popular and common than clingstones.Peaches vs. nectarines: Because nectarines have a smooth skin like a plum, some people think they are a cross between a peach and a plum. But they are not. They are actually a genetic mutation of a peach. A nectarine is just a peach with smooth instead of fuzzy skin.The buzz on fuzz: Peaches found at a roadside market likely are fuzzier than ones packed and shipped to a supermarket. That’s because fruits at the market may be picked directly from the tree and placed in a basket, while supermarket-bound fruits are harvested and then mechanically brushed in the packinghouse to remove the fuzz.Source: Clemson University Extension Service

Instead of mid-September, the season likely will wrap up in August, says Desmond Layne, Clemson University Extension peach specialist, aka “The Peach Doctor.”

Southerners are sweet on classic peach cobbler

Peaches are showing up in all kinds of recipes, both sweet and savory. Still, a classic peach cobbler remains one of the most desired desserts in the South. The following is a recipe from Slightly North of Broad restaurant and executive chef Frank Lee. The recipe appeared in the “Charleston Classic Desserts” cookbook by Janice Shay (Pelican Publishing, 2008). For another interesting thing to do with peaches, check out Nathalie Dupree’s Peach Soup video at CobblerServes 4 to 5For filling8 cups peeled and sliced peaches1/2 cup bourbon (or to taste)1/2 cup sugar1/2 teaspoon vanilla extractFor topping1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature1 cup sugar1 large egg1/2 cup sour cream1 cup all-purpose flour1 teaspoon baking powder1 teaspoon ground cinnamonDirectionsTo make the filling, combine the peaches, bourbon, sugar and vanilla in a bowl. Let stand for at least 30 minutes to macerate. (It can be left overnight in the refrigerator.)Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.To make the topping, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Mix in the egg. Fold in the sour cream.Sift together the flour, baking powder and cinnamon into a separate bowl. Fold into the butter mixture.To assemble the cobbler, spoon 2 cups of the peach filling into each individual 3-cup ungreased baking dish. Top with about 1 cup of the topping mixture, dolloping it onto the cobbler mixture.Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the topping is golden and the juices are bubbling. Serve warm or hot, with ice cream.

Still, that allows plenty of time to get your fill of melt-in-your-mouth peaches, as they are truly called and the South is famous for.

Agriculturally speaking, peaches are classified by flesh texture as either melting, nonmelting or stony hard. “Melting” flesh peaches become softer as they ripen and are the top pick for eating out of hand.

Nonmelting types remain firm even when fully mature, rubbery or chewy to some, and are mainly used for commercial canning. Stony hard varieties can be quite crispy even when fully ripe. The texture is typical of some white-fleshed peaches from Asia.

For now, roadside stands, farmers markets, small stores and even a few of the chain supermarkets are flush with South Carolina peaches. Some say it’s a been an exceptional year for the No. 1 fruit crop in the Palmetto State, which historically outproduces Georgia, “The Peach State,” by 2 to 1.

(In a bit of one-upmanship, South Carolina is officially known as “The Tastier Peach State.”)

“They’ve been fantastic, one of the better years we’ve had,” says Michael Bailey, owner of the Vegetable Bin on East Bay Street downtown.

Bailey gets his peaches directly from Cone Farms in Eutawville, and it is his only source.

Bailey has been impressed by their consistency, size and flavor. “They look good and they taste good, and that’s what’s important.”

Wide variety

More than 40 varieties of peaches are grown within the borders of South Carolina, mostly in the Upstate. Cultivars bear whimsical names including Sunprince, O’Henry, Big Red and Susie Q.

Coloration varies inside and out, but yellow-flesh peaches predominate in the United States. Their skins may be solid red, a red blush over a yellow background, or mostly yellow. Inside, they are light yellow to deep orangey-yellow, usually with some red pigmentation around the pit.

U.S. consumers also see “white” peaches, which are more popular in Asian countries such as China. The skin color ranges from almost white to a solid red, while the flesh is a very pale yellow or champagne hue.

Cultivars with solid red flesh are rare, but some South Carolinians may be familiar with the Indian cling. It is mostly used for pickling, Layne says, and not considered to have the best taste.

However, Layne says breeders are interested in developing redder peaches because of higher anti-oxidants and their appeal to the health conscious. “They will be coming down the pike,” he predicts.

Then there is shape. While most peaches are globelike, there are “doughnuts” in the mix. They’re flatter and squatter and are known for their lower acidity, as are white peaches.

With so many cultivars, why don’t we see their names displayed more often at the point of sale, like we do for the Fuji, Gala and Granny Smiths of the apple world?

Most peaches, explains Layne, have a short harvest window. “From the time you pick the first ripe peaches until the time you pick the last from a tree, you’re looking at a two-week time frame.”

Moreover, picked peaches have a very short shelf life. “They are meant to be consumed very soon after harvesting.”

If a consumer found a par-ticular peach they liked at a chain store and returned two weeks later, “The probability that that same cultivar would be available is fairly low,” says Layne. “It may not be available at all.”

In contrast, apples and pears can be held in cold storage for up to 12 months with no significant impact on their quality, he says. “We can’t do that with peaches.”

Overlapping harvest

Peach farmers typically plant a series of orchards with different cultivars that will ripen in overlapping windows throughout the entire growing season, he says. “But basically every two weeks those varieties are going to change.”

Named cultivars are more likely to be found at roadside or farmers markets because they’re coming directly from the orchards.

Layne says these peaches generally are softer than supermarket peaches because they are at a “tree-ripe” stage, having hung on the tree three to five days longer than peaches that have been picked earlier for longer-distance shipping.

More mature peaches should be sweeter and more flavorful, he says. “Just like a tomato, the longer it’s on the tree, the quality will continue to improve.”

When in doubt to make the best pick, remember Layne’s advice: “It should give a gentle squeeze and should smell like a peach.”