2000s Archive

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

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Zaiger’s work on low-acid varieties began by chance in 1968 when, on a visit to Europe, he noticed that white-fleshed peach and nectarine varieties fetched a premium over yellow ones. Fruit sellers and shippers there took great pains with the exquisite but delicate fruit. American farmers at the time had largely stopped growing white varieties because the fruits were so easily bruised that they couldn’t be shipped long distances. If picked green enough to ship, the fruits would taste tart. Only the Babcock peach and its offspring, which did taste sweet when picked firm because of its low acidity, had any kind of presence in the United States. But it had an unpleasant tinge of bitterness when immature.

Upon his return, Zaiger started breeding for the European market, which preferred white varieties with a balance of acidity and sugar. He earned awards from the French government, including one for his efforts in developing white peaches with classic flavor. Eventually, by crossing tender low-acid white peaches with tougher yellow types, he created low-acid fruit for American growers—mild white peaches that were sweet, but not bitter, when firm enough to ship. Zaiger’s first major selection, White Lady, appeared in 1986; since then, new-style white varieties, some from rival breeders, have rocketed to reach an estimated 18 percent of California’s crop this year.

Zaiger enjoyed similar success with nectarines, which are really fuzzless peaches (not, as some suppose, peach-plum hybrids). Originally much less common than peaches, nectarines tended to be small, with greenish-white flesh and a distinctive rich, winy flavor and aroma. It was Fred Anderson who started the trend toward modern, yellow nectarines—firm, large, and red-skinned. Just as the fragile white nectarine neared commercial extinction in California (which produces 90 percent of the nation’s nectarine crop), Zaiger single-handedly transformed and revived it with Arctic Rose, a stunningly sweet, moderately low-acid variety, in 1989.

Until recently, most of Zaiger’s white-fleshed fruits were exported to East Asia, particularly Taiwan, where low-acid peaches were familiar and prized as symbols of longevity and good fortune. Nectarines required a bit of repositioning (California exporters changed the Chinese name from “oily peach” to “rosy peach”), but they, too, took the Asian market by storm. California growers rushed to plant the profitable new varieties; only since 1997, however, as production burgeoned and the Asian financial crisis limited exports, has the great wave of white fruit hit American consumers.

Building on his work with white varieties, Zaiger next introduced low-acid yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines. The first small crops, of Sweet Scarlet peaches and Honey Kist nectarines, were harvested in 1995, but only now are the new fruits starting to reach grocery stores in volume. Nurserymen estimate that more than a quarter of the yellow fruit now being planted in California is low-acid.

This raises a problem of identity: The mildness of low-acid yellow-fleshed varieties makes them markedly different from traditional fruit, but they look the same. A buyer expecting conventional peaches for cooking, for which the tang of acidity is crucial, might be dismayed to discover he’s purchased blander fruit.

To differentiate the mild yellow varieties, Zaiger encourages growers to print “Zee Sweet—low-acid” on their supermarket stickers. But such designations rile those growers who aren’t ready to jump on the low-acid bandwagon.

Mariani’s verdict on low-acid fruit is mixed: “When harvested ripe, traditional acid varieties are more interesting, richer in flavor,” he says. “But when fruit is picked firm for shipping, low-acid varieties are better. They’re adapted to the marketing system that’s in place.”

The changes wrought by fruit breeders began long before Zaiger’s work, and in the end I can’t fault him for adapting varieties to the American market. Fruit is grown thousands of miles from consumers, and shelf life and appearance are paramount. But I expect more—fragrant, juicy, great-tasting fruits—because I know how good Zaiger’s best can be. Zaiger himself is well aware of the compromises that commerce has entailed.

“We have the genes now to put aroma back into peaches and nectarines,” he says as I get ready to head home. “A lot of sacrifices were made in getting fruit firm enough to be sent around the world. We wanted bigger, redder, and firmer. Now I’m searching for flavor, flavor, flavor.”

The words echo in my ears as I drive away. Floyd Zaiger’s greatest achievements may be yet to come.

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