From the second the farmers markets set up shop in towns up and down our valley, fruit growers are peppered with questions about when the Colorado orchard queens will arrive. For some fruit fanatics, summer is about the search for the perfect peach. And according to fifth-generation farmer Dennis Clark, of Clark Family Farms, you shouldn't have to think too hard.
"The perfect peach is the last one you ate," he says. Like his children, Clark can't - or won't - name a favorite.
"I just can't do it. ... They all taste different and all have a little different flavor," says Clark, who has been eating peaches his whole life. His family has grown peaches in Palisade going on 115 years now. He sells fruit to a few restaurants in Eagle County and, for the past seven years, brings his just-picked produce to local farmers markets in Eagle, Edwards and Vail each week during the summer. On his 100 acres of orchards, Clark grows other stone fruits - cherries, apricots, plums and pears - but it's the peaches that reign supreme. A queen fit for a queen, seeing as Palisade peaches have been shipped to England's royal family on special occasions, such as when the Broncos played the 49ers in London in 2010, Clark says.
The history of the juicy gems dates back more than a century. The first peach trees were planted on Colorado's Western Slope in 1883, and the first Palisade Peach Festival was held in 1895. William Jennings Bryan might have been the guest speaker that first year, but it was the peaches that stole the show. Handed out for free to some 10,000 people in attendance, the peaches were hailed as "big and fair and fat."
So what makes them such?
"I would say it's our altitude, our fresh Colorado water, and we're in the high desert, so our hot days and cool nights have a lot to do with it,"-Clark says. "Nestled in a great little valley here, around the foothills, it's just premium area to grow Colorado fruit."
While the terroir - literally, the dirt - is mostly sandy loam soil, rich in minerals and with good drainage, it's that microclimate that Clark and other farmers like to talk about when you ask them why their peaches taste so darn good. The Western Slope's hot summer days intensify the peach sugars and the flavors. Paired with the cool, dry nights, it's the perfect growing environment for fruit trees.
Sure, you've probably heard about Georgia peaches or even New Jersey peaches. And, of course, California ships the most peaches in the entire country, but as with most things, there's the issue of quality versus quantity.
"Our claim to fame is Palisade grows the world's best-tasting peach," Clark says.
Even in the early 1900s, Palisade peaches were shipped to New York City and other far-flung locales and "were known to be the finest in the world," he says.
His customers agree. Last summer, Clark came home from a long, sweaty day in the orchards to a message on his answering machine.
"I had a phone call last year, right as we were into first peaches, from two women who'd never had a Palisade peach," Clark says. "It was extreme jubilation. Screaming into the phone, they said they'd never eaten anything better. They were headed to Denver, but they were turning around to come back and buy some more. That makes the end of a long, hot day a lot more enjoyable; it puts a smile on your face."
Paul Anders, the executive chef at Sweet Basil in Vail, still remembers the first Palisade peach he ate. Anders and his wife moved from Southern California to Colorado - initially to Denver - a dozen years ago, and they'd just crossed the Colorado-Utah border when they stopped to fill up the gas tank in Fruita, near Palisade.
"We saw a farm stand on a corner and went over to get some fruit," Anders says. "I didn't know anything about Palisade peaches then. I was literally driving a U-Haul trailer and bit into a peach; it was one of those amazing experiences where the juice ran straight down my arm and was flying everywhere. I inhaled the thing. It was so good, so juicy, and it blew me away. Before I moved here, in a million years I would never have thought there'd be great peaches in Colorado. It's one of those unique, unexpected Colorado things."
Zino Executive Chef Nick Haley grew up eating Canadian peaches. He'd bake peach rhubarb pies with his grandmother and remembers the sweet-and-sour flavors that got his tastebuds dancing. For the past six years, he's been cooking with Palisade peaches, which he thinks are made superior by one key thing.
"Having the opportunity to get peaches that are ripened on the tree, rather than ripened unnaturally, you get a whole other product," Haley says. "You get a good consistency of juiciness and texture, and you don't ever get that mealy effect. The people out here know what they're doing and always pick them ripe."
This summer, Haley is slicing the peaches very thin and layering them on a white pizza with prosciutto, gorgonzola, fresh sage and aged balsamic. And lightly grilled Palisade peaches will serve as the crown atop Zino's housemade fettuccine with slow-cooked pork ragu.
Growing up outside of Buffalo, N.Y., Allana Smith, the director of operations at Larkspur, grew up eating New York state peaches year-round - fresh in the summer and the ones her grandmother canned all winter. She encountered Palisade peaches for the first time after taking a position as a pastry chef at Larkspur in 1999.
"The furthest west I'd come before that was Chicago. Good peaches, to me, came from the South: Georgia peaches," Smith says. "The farmers came around with Palisade peaches, and I remember being shocked. They were bigger and juicer and even sweeter. They look like they're on steroids, probably because the farmers are pruning the trees more."
That, and not growing so many that quality is lost, she says.
"They need the product that's practically going to glow at the market," she says. "And that's beautiful, big, fat, juicy, sweet peaches."
The adjectives used to describe Palisade peaches vary as much as the ways chefs use the sweet stone fruits in kitchens across the valley. But when it comes to Colorado's orchard queen, the truly perfect peach is the last one you devoured. So go on, it's time to begin the quest.
Recipe courtesy of Zino Ristorante, Edwards
1 pound ground pork butt
3 to 4 peaches
1/2 cup diced onions
4 cloves chopped garlic
4 cups diced San Marzano tomatoes
2 cups red wine
3 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
3 bay leaves
1 cup milk
1/2 cup Parmesan reggiano
1 cup stock (vegetable, chicken or beef)
Salt and pepper
1 pound durum flour
3 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
Dice onions, chop garlic, and set them aside. Take a large pot and place on high heat, and add a small amount of oil. Once the pot starts to smoke, add pork, and brown for 5 minutes.
Add diced garlic and onions, and saute. While sauteing the garlic and onions, tie your thyme, rosemary and bay leaf together, and then add to the pot. Add red wine; when reduced by half, add your diced San Marzano tomatoes. Cook for 30 minutes on low.
Add stock and milk, and return to heat for 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Top the dish with peaches that have been grilled, de-skinned and diced.
Make the pasta
Heap the flour, and make a well in it. Break the eggs into the well. Beat eggs with a fork. Stir into the flour from the bottom of the well with the fork until the dough in the center is smooth or shiny. With your hands, gradually incorporate the flour from the outside of the well toward the center, kneading gently until the mass of dough comes together. Knead the dough until it is smooth. Depending on the humidity and the size of the eggs, you may need to add or take out flour. If the dough is sticky or extremely pliable, knead more flour into it.
Divide the dough into three portions, cover with plastic wrap or an overturned bowl, and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Roll the dough out very thin on a lightly floured surface, one portion at a time.
Cook pasta for 3 to 4 minutes in salted water. Drain pasta, and toss with pork ragu. Finish with fresh diced peaches and shaved Parmesan Reggiano.
Recipe courtesy of Larkspur, Vail
Mark Metzger, Larkspur's executive pastry chef, may have grown up eating New Jersey peaches, but the New York transplant says he now prefers Palisade peaches because of the fruit's "perfect balance of acid and sugar."
"I love them," he says. "I get excited about them every summer."
Likewise, Metzger also grew up eating cannolis, a pastry dessert that originated in Sicily.
"It's just one of those nostalgic desserts I grew up on," he says. "Everyone served them - all the Italian delis had them in the windows. And you can find them here and there in Colorado, but they're never what they should be."
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, softened
2 egg yolks
3/4 cup white wine
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg mixed with 2 tablespoons
water for egg wash
Oil for frying
6 cannoli forms
3-inch round pastry cutter
1 pastry bag fitted with a
mid-sized round pastry tip
Preheat 4 cups of oil for frying to 350 degrees. The oil must be deep enough to completely submerge the cannoli form and shells.
Mix flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add egg yolks; stir with a fork. Stir in wine and vanilla, 1 tablespoon at a time, with a fork until dough clings together.
Form a ball with the dough, and let stand for 60 minutes covered in plastic wrap. Roll dough almost paper thin on a well-floured surface.
Using a 3-inch ring cutter, cut dough into circles, form the dough around metal cannoli forms, and seal the overlap with the egg wash. Fry the shells on the forms at 350 degrees until golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. Allow the shell to cool on a dry towel, and remove from the form. Fry the shell without the form again for 1 minute. Remove the shell from the oil, and drain on a towel. Allow the shells to cool completely.
2 cups ricotta impastata (or low-moisture ricotta strained in cheesecloth)
1 cup mascarpone cheese
4 ounces sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Zest of one lime
2 Palisade peaches, peeled and diced
4 ounces heavy cream
In mixing bowl, add first six ingredients and mix until just combined. Add diced peaches, and mix until distributed through the cream. Scrape the sides of the bowl. Finish with the heavy cream, and mix until combined.
Place the filling in a pastry bag fitted with a medium round pastry tip. Pipe the filling into the cannoli shell from both sides to fill the tube, and serve.