This post was sponsored by Zehrs Markets. What does that mean? Zehrs arranged for my visit to Tregunno Fruit Farms and paid me to develop the recipes for my peach tartines. The ideas, opinions and wording of this post are entirely my own. Sponsored posts help me to cover the costs of maintaining this website.
Not much about a basket of peaches in the grocery store looks high-tech. But there are a lot of modern gadgets required to get the fuzzy fruit from tree to shelf.
I learned that on a recent tour of Tregunno Fruit Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake — Canada’s largest peach farm — with produce managers and other representatives from Zehrs and the Loblaw family of grocery stores. Zehrs arranged for me to join the tour as part of its Food Lovers Unite program so I could what goes into growing Niagara’s agricultural emblem and its journey from farm to store to my belly.
For Zehrs and Loblaws staff, it was a chance to create a greater connection to the produce they sell, gleaning stories and an understanding of peach production to pass on to customers in their stores.
It was as much a learning opportunity for me — a lot has changed since my days as a newsroom agriculture reporter. But it was also a chance to feel serious gratitude for farmer Phil Tregunno, his sons Ryan and Jourdan, who help him run the family’s sprawling 800 acres of orchards and vineyards bumping up against the mighty Niagara River, and their team of seasonal farm workers picking and packing peaches that will wind up in my local Zehrs store.
Niagara peach grower Phil Tregunno and local peaches in-store at Zehrs.
The peach’s journey to my belly starts in the orchard where the tender fruit is carefully harvested. A kid-glove touch is required to pick peaches to avoid bruising and spoilage farther along the peach chain.
Pickers make sure there’s nothing obviously wrong with the fruit — no splitting through the centre, which can happen early in the season when spring rains can cause those first peaches off the tree to swell and rupture. Then it’s off to a cavernous cooler where the peaches literally chill out before moving on to a sprawling packing shed.
Peaches go high-tech
Enter the high-tech part. At one time, workers visually sorted and packed peaches for shipment to Zehrs stores. Now an expansive conveyor, stretching in a long, straight line to prevent bruising, does the bulk of the work.
Baskets loaded with peaches are brought to the packing line from the cooler that’s organized in a way that deserves a Marie Kondo stamp of approval. Every skid of peaches in the giant fridge is traceable to its harvest crew and location in the Tregunnos’ orchard.
When they’re ready to pack, the peaches go on a conveyor and are carried up a big wheel — sort of like a ferris wheel for fruit — that gently turns the baskets upside down to ensure the softest landing on the packing line to avoid blemishes.
The peaches are washed to remove stray fuzz, and then funnelled down the line to an optical sorter. It’s a fancy name for a machine that uses infrared scanning and snaps as many as 400 pictures of every peach to detect flaws.
Those photos are shot in a matter of seconds and they capture the most imperceptible defects that the sharpest human eye would miss. Insect bites, even pickers’ thumbprints that are bruises-in-waiting are detected, and peaches with flaws are removed, ensuring only the highest quality fruit gets to my local Zehrs store.
From there, peaches move down the packing line to workers who place them in baskets and clamshells for Zehrs. No packing tables are overloaded — again to keep the peaches from bumping up against each other and bruising, and every flat of peaches packed is traceable to the Tregunnos’ farm and the hands that touched it between the orchard and store. (Fun fact: peaches are touched only twice on the farm — once when harvested and again when they’re packed.)
Best of all, those peaches I saw move from orchard to packing barn arrive in my Zehrs store 24-48 hours after being harvested. Meanwhile, it can take up to a whole week for peaches from California to get to these parts.
“That’s the advantage of local,” said Phil, a fourth-generation farmer. “We’re close. If, all of a sudden, at three in the afternoon, we get extra orders, we’ll stay late and fill them.”
There’s also a significant philanthropic side to Tregunno Fruit Farms. The family donates fruit regularly to food banks, and on the day we visited, there were 1,500 packages of peaches ready for giving.
With all of the safeguards to ensure the best fruit gets into consumers’ hands, only about six per cent of the peaches the Tregunnos grow are rejected for flaws and damage. All of it winds back in the orchard as compost.
Tregunno peaches are sold across Canada, and there’s a certain pride that comes from knowing that, especially when Phil walks into Zehrs and sees his peaches on store shelves.
It’s a feeling shared by fewer and fewer growers, who don’t have a generation coming up behind them willing to take over the farm. At one time, there were 1,500 peach growers in Ontario, Phil noted. Now there are only about 300.
“There’s a lot of farmers looking for exit plans but we keep looking for ways to put back into the orchard so it’s ongoing,” Phil said.
Peaches for me
Ongoing describes my love of peaches. I could eat them all day, every day during peach season. Ditto for my daughter, who subsists on a steady diet of them at this time of year. She rivals me in her love of peaches, requesting them for breakfast and lunch. She wants peaches for dinner and dessert, and peaches as a bedtime snack, too.
“Can I have three peaches?” she’ll ask when we pack her lunch for day camp.
“How about two?” I counter, knowing that as healthy as peaches are, she should probably eat something else, too.
Still, it was obvious that my peach-loving daughter needed to be recruited to the kitchen with me to do something with the beauties I was gifted by Phil. Truth is, I don’t do a lot of cooking or baking with peaches. It’s not that I draw a blank and don’t know how to honour them in the kitchen. It’s just that peach season seems so fleeting, lasting from mid-July to the end of September.
Few things beat a Niagara peach, as is, a point proven by the fact that my daughter kept eating the peach slices I’d set aside for our project. They need nothing in the way of intervention, interference or adulteration to taste better. So, with simplicity in mind I rationed my Tregunno peaches to make three versions of peach tartines (a fancy word for open-faced sandwiches, toasted or not) that I hope honour the work of the Tregunno family.
One is savoury and can be eaten hot or not. It pairs peaches with that other ultimate harbinger of summer: perfectly ripe, juicy heirloom tomatoes.
Peach Caprese tartine with purslane (top) and Sweet as a Peach Tartine with maple cashew cream (bottom).
Their sweetness of the peaches is complemented by the gentle heat of chili oil to grill the bread, a scant sprinkling of salt and pepper, and fragrant basil or spritely, citrusy purslane. A spritz of olive oil and a layer of buffalo Mozzarella gives this savoury peach toast an unctuousness that never gets overbearing, no many how toasts you eat in a sitting (and from my experience, you can eat a lot).
A few minutes under the broiler and this becomes a meal best eaten with a knife and fork.
The other peach toast is sweet with a maple cashew cream swept atop your favourite toasted bread and layered with peach slices. A drizzle of honey and flecks of cinnamon make for a swoon-worthy finish.
Sweet or savoury, hot or cold, whichever you prefer — we’re all food lovers, after all — they’re nothing short of peachy and leave the high-tech, hard work for Phil and crew.
- 2-4 slices of your favourite bread (see note)
- Chili oil
- 150 grams fresh Buffalo Mozzarella, sliced 1/4-inch thick
- 1-2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
- 1-2 peaches sliced, 1/4-inch thick
- Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
- Flaky sea salt
- Fresh ground pepper
- Small handful of fresh basil leaves, torn or julienned (optional)
- Small handful of fresh purslane leaves (optional)
Turn on your broiler to high.
Heat a dry skillet over medium-high heat.
Brush both sides of your bread with chili oil. (I pour a small amount in a bowl, then dip my brush and spread. You don’t want the bread to be saturated but the surface should be well-covered.)
Fry the oiled bread in the skillet, checking for desired doneness after two minutes. Flip your bread and toast another two minutes or until desired toastiness. (I recommend a light toast if you decide to broil your tartines. The exposed bread will get toastier under the broiler.)
Slice peaches, tomatoes and cheese.
Wash and dry basil or purslane, or both, if using.
To assemble, layer cheese slices on the fried bread. Top with tomato slices, then add a layer of peach slices.
Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and pop into the broiler 2-5 minutes to caramelize fruit and melt the cheese (check after two minutes. I found the tartines were ready after two minutes under my oven broiler and five minutes under my toaster oven broiler). Skip the broiler if you prefer to eat your tartines cold.
Remove the tartines from the broiler, sprinkle with salt and pepper and garnish with basil or purslane. Enjoy!
My favourite store-bought bread comes in large slices, so I found I only needed two slices, cut in half, to make four tartines. If your bread slices aren’t large, like with a boule or rustic Italian loaf, you will need four slices.
Depending on the size of your peaches and tomatoes, you might find that one provides enough slices for four tartines.
For the maple cashew cream (makes 2 1/4 cups)
- 1 1/2 cups raw cashews, soaked overnight and rinsed (see note)
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 2/3 cup water
For the tartines
- 2-4 slices of your favourite bread, toasted (see note)
- Maple cashew cream
- 2 peaches, sliced, 1/4-inch thick
- Honey for drizzling
- Cinnamon for sprinkling
For the Maple Cashew Cream:
Place all the ingredients in a high-speed blender and blend until smooth. If you find the cream is too thick, add more water, one tablespoon at a time, blending until desired consistency.
For the Tartines:
Slice peaches and set aside.
Toast bread to desired doneness.
Spread a generous amount of maple cashew cream on your toasted bread.
Top with a layer of sliced peaches. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon. And enjoy!
If you’re like me and forget to soak your cashews before the mood for maple cashew cream strikes, you can boil raw cashews for 15 minutes instead. Just rinse and use them like you would the soaked version.
The amount of bread you need for this recipe depends on the size of the slices. Larger slices can be cut in half, so you’ll only require two slices to make four tartines.