When you think of Sicilian fruit the first images to come to mind are without doubt its citruses, from Tarocco blood oranges to limes, then watermelons, pomegranates and prickly pears. But peaches? Yes, peaches! And not just any old peaches.
The Peach in a Bag is a rather special product, so much so that it’s both a Slow Food Presidium and a Protected Geographical Indication, and the name is in no way symbolic or figurative: the defining feature of these peaches is the bags wrapped around them while they’re still on the tree!
To get the lowdown on these accessorized trees and the juicy peaches they provide we spoke to Giovanni Trovati, coordinator of the Presidium and owner of the Samperi farm in Leonforte, a hillside town 600 meters above sea level in the Erean Mountains of central Sicily. So high, in fact, that when we speak to Giovanni, it’s snowing! In March!
“These lands have belonged to my family for a long time,” Giovanni tell us. “Since the 1600s. The traditional agricultural products of this area, besides peaches, are olives, both for oil and for the table, and fava beans. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that this custom of tying bags around peaches while they were still on the tree appeared in Leonforte. It wasn’t completely ex nihilo, however, as there’s a tradition in Japan of bagging apples on trees that goes back much further.”
It hasn’t exactly become a widespread practice, however, and remains limited to a tiny slice of the Sicilian countryside. “There are just 150 hectares, in total, where the Peach in a Bag is produced, all in the local area around Leonforte, of which Samperi manages 22.” So, given the effort required in individually bagging each peach, the natural question is: why?
Protection against pests – without chemicals
“The answer, quite simply, is to protect them. Principally from the Mediterranean fruit fly, a voracious pest which would otherwise pose a serious risk.” Indeed, Ceratitis capitata is widely considered one of the most destructive fruit pests in the world. The normal solution would be to spray one’s crops with chemical pesticides, but not so at Samperi, as Giovanni explains. “We’re a certified organic farm, which means we use nothing of the sort. But the bag doesn’t just protect against the flies, but the weather too: we may have hail, strong storms, even snow!”
But what exactly is the bag made of? “It’s parchment paper. That mean’s there’s a layer of wax over it, so it doesn’t rot, but it’s also transparent enough for the farmer to see how the peaches are growing, how far along they are. The paper also allows light and air through, of course; it wouldn’t work if it prevented the natural growth cycle of the fruit. We put the bags on them in June, when the fruit is still almond-sized, and harvest them in September or October when they’re fully mature. The older farmers still wear a slice of orange or lemon on their chests to keep their fingers wet while they harvest them.”
The shifting sands of commerce
Prior to the pandemic there were numerous avenues of business for Samperi: from direct sales to customers visiting the farm, to the numerous gastronomic tours of Sicily that brought millions of tourists to the island every year, and of course the roaring restaurant trade. With all those routes temporarily closed off, Samperi has been forced, like so many, to adapt to the rapidly-changing times.
“We’ve had to seek new partners, but it’s not easy, because we only want to deal with a certain kind of distribution, one that is mindful of quality, that works in a certain way. Through Slow Food and the Presidium we’ve activated a project with an all-organic supermarket present across Italy, NaturaSi. And through our hard work in marketing, we’ve been able to increase our direct online sales too, to customers across Europe.”
A Slow Food Presidium and a Protected Geograpical Indication
The peaches of Leonforte have been recognized as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), both of which aim to protect this unique food. “Despite the recognition of this product, that didn’t stop its peculiarities being seen as problems by distributors and middle-men. It was seen as something crazy, to bag the peaches, something that wasn’t productive, but that’s the logic of quantity over quality. With Slow Food, that logic was turned on its head, and those characteristics which were seen negatively by big distributors were instead viewed as prestigious.”
While both categorizations have a related production protocol, Giovanni explains that being part of a Slow Food Presidium entails more stringent rules designed to be a better guarantor of quality. “As Presidium producers we undertake not to use antioxidant preservatives, for example, and to only use natural recipes in the transformed products we make with the peaches. That’s a message to the client, that they can trust what they get from us.”
Peaches and wine
And what can we get from Samperi, exactly? What are they doing with these unusual peaches after plucking them from the trees and removing their bags? Giovanni is particularly proud of one recent innovation. “I’ve been pushing a new concoction. Well, actually it has rather a long history too, but ours is new: Peaches in Nero d’Avola wine; the peaches are all hand-peeled before being conserved in the wine. It’s perfect for a summer’s day, with fresh peaches too, to let them sit in a glass of red wine. And we look forward to being able to do it together with our friends, families and customers once more, and soon.”
by Jack Coulton, email@example.com