James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Best Peach in the World

The Best Peach in the World

Roussanne Peaches in Monein

Just before 9am, the narrow streets of Monein are already dense with heat, and dozens of people march—with more determination than a languorous summer morning should warrant—towards the central outdoor market. They carry string bags or wooden crates and their mission is singular: to procure armloads of Roussanne peaches, which are being fêted today under the stone arches of the halles, and whose aroma drifts heady and thick through the town’s tight center.

Locals are no doubt biased, but this peach is believed to be one of the most glorious varieties on earth, with an unearthly perfume, a firm, rustic skin, and yellow flesh with a near perfect equilibrium between sugar and acidity. It bruises easily, making transportation difficult, and because peak ripeness is fleeting, it must be eaten quickly. In other words, it’s a delicacy. But the sense of anticipation on the Monein sidewalks is not only because chilly spring weather forced this year’s crop to take its precious time, and people cannot wait to tuck into a ripe one and fall to their knees in pleasure. It is also because until a decade ago, the Roussanne, which was described in Thomas Bridgeman’s 1847 book The Fruit Cultivator’s Manual, as “melting, juicy, rich, sweet, vinous and excellent,” had all but vanished from the landscape. And then, thanks to the unique vision of one woman, it made an exultant return and the town is still in the mood to celebrate.

The ancestral home of this most mythical fruit is believed to be Languedoc to the east, but over time, Roussanne peach trees dug their roots here in the Béarn region of southwestern France. This green and fertile strip of Aquitaine sprawls across the foothills of the Pyrénées just north of Spain and a short eastward drive from the splashy beach resorts of the Côte Basque. This geographical point between the dry mountains and the humid coast is ideal for a deeply flavorful peach. The Roussannes flourished for centuries, but it is a capricious fruit, prone to bugs and other plant maladies that arise from extreme weather fluctuations.

The region saw a progressive decline of peach production as the orchards gave way to cornfields and vineyards of Manseng and Corbu grapes, used to make Jurancon wines. Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, the Roussanne disappeared entirely and became the local agricultural version of the yeti: the stuff of legend. “My father showed me pictures from the 1930s of the market in Monein,” says Roussanne producer Marie-José Casaubon, the woman who had a hunch about the storied fruit, and would engineer its comeback. “So I knew that once, there had been peaches here.”

Casaubon lives on a hilltop in Cuqueron, a tiny hamlet not far from Monein. In 1996, a man arrived to give condolences on the death of her father, a winegrower. Out of nowhere and to her great confusion, the visitor predicted peaches in her future. “I was an accountant and had no interest in becoming a peach grower,” she says. “And yet somehow it made me think. I knew my life would change.” Nagged by a desire to pursue this vision, in 1999 she planted five saplings according to instructions from Aquitaine’s agricultural conservatory. Two years and one single fat peach later, she placed a cold call to the Institute Nationale de la Recherche Agronomique in Bordeaux, gathered all the historical studies on the Roussanne, some dating back to the 1100s, consulted crop engineers and found her calling. “Now I understood it was my life,” she says.

In 2004, she began the grower’s cooperative and planted her orchard of 500 trees over a single hectare. By 2008, she had her first crop of 20 tons of fruit, and the Roussanne was officially reborn. Today, there are 18 producers throughout Monein, many of whom are at the halles this summer morning to sell and celebrate the best year ever of the Béarn’s ancient peach. After the cool spring came a canicule—a heat wave—which locked in the sweet juices and hastened the Roussanne’s harvest. “It’s a noble fruit, and so delicate and fragile, and as a grower it demands a lot of patience,” says Jean-Mark Maysonnave, brandishing a perfect specimen. “But really, isn’t it beautiful?”

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