We currently have two fan trained peach trees in one of the glasshouses, Early Rivers and Bellegarde. The latter is supposed to ripen mid September, whilst the former, as the name suggests, is an early sort, and today we shared our first ripe peach.
I am very fond of peaches, but so often a little disappointed. A fully ripe peach simply cannot be transported any distance – certainly not shipped across continents. Nor, in my view, is it a fruit that ripens well if picked when firm. It will, of course, soften, but it will not reach the height of perfection that one hopes for. Although I do buy peaches, it seems that the only way to experience the perfectly ripe fruit is to grow them. In the height of the walled kitchen garden, peaches were widely grown, and, along with figs and grapes, were planted to make best use of the walls and glasshouses. They were perhaps the most prized of fruits for the dessert. Ours similarly take the most favourable location against one of the two glasshouse walls.
I am usually inclined to grow old varieties, and I suppose Early Rivers, from 1867, would be considered an old variety now, although the French Bellegarde is far older, having been grown in the UK since the early 1700s. The Early Rivers peach was raised by Thomas Rivers (1798–1877) of Sawbridgeworth, undoubtedly the most renowned of nurserymen, who ran the long established family nursery during what one might consider to be the height of fruit cultivation in this country. Although many of the varieties of fruit I have chosen predate this member of the Rivers family, I was very keen to include at least a couple of sorts from his prodigious output, and have planted the Early Rivers peach and Early Rivers sweet cherry.
In his renowned Fruit Manual, 1884, Robert Hogg praises this variety:
This is the finest early peach known, and ripens about the 14th of July in an orchard-house. In size and colour it is not unlike Noblesse. In France it succeeds so well that Mr. F. Jamin says it is the finest early peach in France. Its only fault is that it splits at the stone, and the kernel is imperfect. This probably arises from imperfect fertilisation, from the pistil protruding so far beyond the stamens. It is well adapted for forcing. At Teddington Mr. R. D. Blackmore finds it “a large and good peach, but very pale, and splits even in dry seasons. On this account it is worthless here.”
This peach was sent to me by Mr. Rivers on the 20th of July, 1867, when it was first produced, and I was so struck with its superiority over all other early peaches and its perfectly distinct character, that I considered it a fitting opportunity to record the name of the raiser by associating it with a fruit which cannot fail to become a universal favourite. It was raised from seed of Early Silver.
Coincidentally, Hogg reports Early Rivers ripening around 14th July, which is when we tasted our first fruit. It is interesting to see how an old variety stands up today, and whether it matches reasonably its description in various old texts. Thankfully, we found this peach to be equally as delicious as its description suggested. Early Rivers is a white peach; the skin is pale yellow, retaining almost a green tinge away from the sun, and with a touch of red blush on the sun side. The flesh is pale, somewhat translucent, and succulent, with a little fibre, and a rich, sweet, peach flavour, interestingly balanced by a slight acidity that I have not before tasted in a peach. Overall, I think it is fair to say, that I have not tasted a finer peach; but then, I have never before tasted a peach ripened on the tree and picked at its best.
I cannot compare the results with a modern peach – I have never tasted a perfectly ripened fruit from a modern variety, nor do I envisage growing one. I might be tempted if I did not have the protection of glass, as some modern varieties are said to be fairly resistant to peach leaf curl. However, with the benefit of covered cultivation, I prefer to grow old varieties that I find a little more interesting; they are not only great fruits, but a living piece of history. I would probably still grow them even if their fruit was not quite so good – but in the case of Early Rivers, I need not be concerned.
Early Rivers made an appearance in several episodes of my favourite television series, The Victorian Kitchen Garden, and I can do no better than echo the words of Peter Thoday, who, after taking a bite of a perfect looking peach, simply exclaimed “Well done Mr Rivers”.