The Time is Ripe

May 25, 2007

If there’s one word that sums up late spring and summertime farmers’ markets, it’s ripe. Plump berries, taut cherries, and fragrant, juicy peaches are heaped high at growers’ stalls. One of the joys of shopping at the farmers’ market, and what inspires us to sometimes walk away with a lot more than we came for, is the readiness of summer fruits.

To withstand a sometimes week-long journey, fruit destined for supermarkets must be picked firm. Steven Kashiwase of Kashiwase Farms says of wholesalers, “I’ve never been able to pick it hard enough for them, it seems.” Any stone fruit that he doesn’t sell straight to eaters is harvested at least a few days early, depriving it of precious days of sugar development, which ceases after harvest. Soft fruits simply won’t survive for long enough to be sorted, packed, shipped and then placed on grocery store shelves for several days. Though fruits ripened after harvest can still be delicious, they never quite rival those that have been nurtured all the way to their peak by the plant from which they came.

The ripening process is a marvel of chemistry. It begins with a spike in the fruit’s production of ethylene gas, a hormone that stimulates the manufacture of certain enzymes that act as catalysts in the transformation of fruit from inedible to delectable. Acids and chlorophyll break down, other pigments develop, starches turn to simple sugars, pectin decreases, and aromas arise.

Ripe is somewhat subjective, of course. To some, a truly ripe nectarine is far too juicy to eat without a towel or over a sink, while to others, sweet with still a little crunch is perfection. This range of eaters’ preferences can usually be accounted for on just one tree. Fruits on the top and near the outside of the tree (unprotected by the shade of leaves) are juicy and soft when the interior fruits are still fairly firm. So how do farmers know when their crops are ready to reap?

Yuk Hamada reports that after 60 years of farming, he knows ripe when he smells it. He also encourages his workers to taste each variety before they begin harvest. Despite having Type II diabetes, Yuk guiltily admits that he tastes each of his more than 100 varieties, too. His other indication that fruit has reached maturity: the robins and crows begin hastily devouring it. While he uses several methods to deter birds, the trick, Yuk says, is to grow more fruit than they could ever consume.

For Al Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm, using a small tool called a refractometer is an essential method to determine when it’s time to pick his stone fruits. Refractometers measure degrees Brix, or the amount of soluble solids (mostly sugars) contained in a drop of the fruit’s juice. “A really sweet tomato is a 10, but if you have a 10 peach, it’s picked way too green,” says Al, “our Bings [a variety of cherry] will go up to 30.” The other factor most important to him is color. If fruit has a high Brix and good color, it’s ready to go to market.

By waiting until the very last moment to harvest, farmers run the risk of letting their fruit over-ripen. Steven says he has let his fruit get too mature on a number of occasions and Al Courchesne claims, “I still make mistakes every year, every day.” You certainly wouldn’t know it to taste his fruit.

Find the ripest cherries, peaches, berries and other fruits at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Remember, ripe means ready-to-eat, so farmers’ market fruit is best eaten soon after purchase.