Some people who grew up on big round peaches are developing a taste for a variety that looks as though it has been squashed by a dictionary.
Saturn peaches -- small, flat versions of the old summer staple -- are just starting to catch on in Pennsylvania, and the few fruit stands that carry the variety are having trouble keeping them in stock.
"That's one of the good things about them, is that they sell so quickly. You never have to worry about storing them," said Kay Hollabaugh of Hollabaugh Bros. Inc. Fruit Farm and Market. "They really sell themselves because they're so unique."
Flat peaches have been harvested in Asia for hundreds of years, and some varieties were grown in New York orchards as early as the 1820s. Current flat peach varieties in the United States are descendants of the Chinese peento peach, brought to the United States in 1869.
But only in the past several years have flat peaches been introduced to wide audiences in the United States. The Hollabaughs planted their first seedlings in 2001 and sold their first full crop last season.
Frieda's Inc., a California-based specialty fruit company often credited with introducing the kiwi fruit to Americans, may also get credit for popularizing flat peaches. They first rolled out Donut peaches in the mid-1980s and now provide them to supermarkets across the country.
"There's a huge market for smaller cute things -- you can pack it in a school lunch and all that," said Tristan Millar, marketing and product development director for Frieda's. "They are smaller, and so that does appeal for children. And they deliver on taste -- they absolutely deliver on taste."
To demonstrate that, Hollabaugh gave a sample to Leonard Grabowski, 81, of Gettysburg, Pa. He had seen these UFOs -- unidentified fruitlike objects -- but never tried them until Hollabaugh offered him a taste at the market just north of Biglerville.
He looked at it askance at first, but once he had popped it in his mouth, Grabowski started to smile. Before long, he had bought a quart of the funny-looking fruit.
"I'd seen them before, but I didn't even know what they were," Grabowski said. "They're good. They're really sweet."
In part, that is because the flat peaches on the market -- varieties include the Donut, Saturn, Jupiter and Galaxy -- are all white peaches, with a softer flesh, less acid and more sugar than traditional yellow peaches. That gives them a sweeter, more delicate flavor than the bolder, more acidic yellow peaches.
"With our grocery stores so plastered with so many kinds of produce of all sorts, it's hard to compete. This is something that really grabs people," Hollabaugh said. "People are enamored of their appearance. And once they try them, they're hooked."
But unlike the white-peach craze that took off a few years back, prompting some farmers to plant almost half of their peach acreage in whites, the market for flat peaches remains a niche.
"It's a novelty right now," said John Lott of Bear Mountain Orchards in Aspers. "Do we sell a lot of them? No. But everyone's taking one or two, see what they're like. But it seems like people like them, and when they like them, they'll keep eating them."
Flat peaches are popular with growers for another reason -- their premium prices. A quart of Saturns at Hollabaugh Bros. costs $5.50, compared with $3.50 for round peaches. Hollabaugh said that premium is necessary for the family business to remain viable as U.S. grocers and food processors continue to import foreign fruit.
"It's critical. The foreign market is becoming a real problem for us, especially with apples," Hollabaugh said. "But, right now, you can't produce a stone fruit in China and get it into the United States in a way someone wants to eat it, so these really help."