For a few short weeks in mid summer, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, perhaps America’s most iconic restaurant, serves a single Arctic Gem white peach as its fruit plate. Occasionally, there may be a few berries alongside but more often it’s just an Arctic Gem and a knife.
The peach is from Dry Creek Peach and Produce, located on Yoakim Bridge Rd. in the heart of Dry Creek Valley in Healdsburg.
“Every year we begin working with Chez Panisse,” Gayle Sullivan says, “when the Arctic Gems ripen.”
Gayle and Brian Sullivan purchased Dry Creek Peach and Produce in the fall of 2000 from Steve and Johanna Monroe. They were looking for a house with a bit of land and stumbled upon this treasure, which has been producing stone fruit and row crops for at least sixty years.
During the Monroes’ tenure, the farm specialized in organic peaches and so-called conventional asparagus. Sometimes the Monroes also sold a small sweet red pepper at the farmers market, where Johanna would share her favorite ways to prepare it. (For her recipe for Hungarian Sweet Peppers, along with other peach recipes, visit pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.)
When the Sullivans took over, they removed the asparagus patch.
“It was a winter crop,” Brian Sullivan explains, “and we are in San Francisco in the winter.” They head back to the city in late August, when their son Patrick’s school begins.
They soon added a hundred new peach trees to the orchard and put in an organic produce garden, which today is known for delicious Celebrity tomatoes and Walla Walla onions, sold at the farm’s store, occasionally with a few other crops, like beets, cucumbers, Italian parsley and such. They also have other stone fruit, including pluots, plums and nectarines. The store also sells estate peach jam and dangerously delicious bellini mix which needs nothing more than a glass pitcher and a bottle of sparkling wine.
But, really, the farm is all about peaches, thirty different varieties of them.
The season begins with Rich May, a yellow peach that is the first variety to ripen sometime in mid-spring, as its name implies. Nearly every week thereafter there’s a new peach to savor until sometime in early September, when the ripening of Last Chance, a yellow peach, heralds the conclusion of the season.
For fans of the Arctic Gem, the season begins right about now, in late July or early August, depending on the weather. This year, the Arctic Gems are right on time but the crop is small.
What makes this peach so special?
“Not all peaches have its blend of sweetness and acidity,” Gayle says, “and it is so incredibly fragrant. Visitors walk into the farm store and exclaim about how good it smells.”
That’s because there’s a row of Arctic Gem trees adjacent to the store and the entire area, inside and out, is saturated with their evocative perfume. If you’ve ever bought a flat of these peaches, you understand. The kitchen fills with their sweet fragrance.
The peach also has an extraordinary silky, satin-like texture.
Dry Creek Peach and Produce has a growing tradition of special events. For many years, John Ash has been guest chef at a special mid-summer dinner in the orchard, this year taking place on Saturday, August 5. On August 12, it is the lunch stop for Tour d’Organics, a bike ride through west Sonoma County sponsored by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Hundreds of riders enjoy lunch at the farm, which features Dry Creek Peach and Produce tomatoes.
And something new is in the works for 2013. The Sullivans are currently evaluating the possibility of a peach membership. If it happens, members will be able to be involved throughout the year, learning pruning, thinning and picking practices and enjoying special harvest meals in the orchard. Members will also enjoy “first choice Fridays,” when they can savor the first of each new variety before the farm store opens.
Dry Creek Peach and Produce, founded several decades ago and today owned and operated by Gayle and Brian Sullivan, attends the Healdsburg Certified Farmers Market on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. The farm store is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. through early September. For more information, visit drycreekpeach.com.