There is no more enigmatic symbol of Colorado agriculture than the fawned-over Palisade peach, and Steve Ela of Ela Family Farms is quite all right with that. “We’ve staked our reputation on picking a ripe peach,” he says. “We want people to stop in their tracks when they bite an Ela peach.”
While other states such as Georgia, South Carolina and even New Jersey are known for homegrown peaches, Coloradans are quite rightly proud of their own. As peach season looms over the Centennial state, anticipation rises among locals. From the minute schools are out and the temperature on the dial pushes over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, guests at my restaurant peruse the menu and are quick to ask, “Any dishes with Palisade peaches tonight?”
Colorado’s “breadbasket,” the Western Slope region, has been growing orchard fruit since as early as the 1880s. Some of the first peach trees in the area were planted by John Harlow and his wife, Jean. After a few years of trial and tribulation, the Harlows found their niche and even won the top peach prize at the Mesa County Fair in 1887.
Peach Days in Palisade, which started around the same time, has turned into today’s Palisade Peach Festival. Early inhabitants of the area included a lot of folks originally from Iowa, who knew good farmland when they saw it and thought the climate could be good for fruit. Today, western Colorado boasts a short cherry and apricot season in June and peaches in the summer months, culminating with an apple and pear harvest come late summer into autumn.
Ela Family Farms (EFF) is situated at an elevation of 5,800 feet in Hotchkiss, about 1,000 feet higher than Palisade. Steve is a fourth-generation peach farmer whose family has been growing on the Western Slope since 1907; the land he and his family currently harvest was purchased in 1987. EFF began the transition to organic farming in 1994 and became certified organic in 2004.
EFF grows fourteen varieties of peaches, from Earlistar to JH Hale. The latter has a terrific balance of tartness and sweetness and is almost blood red in the center, boasting that drip-down-your-chin moment that resonates so well with Coloradans. The EFF peach season starts in mid-July and lasts for eight weeks into September. While each peach varietal has its own nuances, Steve's favorite “is the tree-ripened one in my hand” at that moment. He also takes great pride in the fact that EFF sells only what it grows, including fruit, jams, fruit spreads and butters.
A typical peach tree produces thousands of peach blossoms every year. According to Steve, trees can lose about 90 percent of these blossoms to frost and still have a great crop. The perfect number EFF is looking for is approximately 100 blossoms per tree. One hundred fifty blossoms will produce smaller peaches, while fifty on a tree taste terrific but are often too large for market. The key is to not stress the tree, and Colorado peach trees have endured plenty of tumult in the past few years.
“'Okay' would be a generous description” for this year’s harvest, Steve says. The North Fork Valley got clobbered by an October 30 freeze that saw temperatures dip near 3 degrees above zero. EFF trees were not prepared for such a quick swing in weather. While it was not an easy economic decision, the orchard had to take out ten to twelve acres of trees that could recover but could also become a magnet for disease.
Steve expects a 20 percent yield on their trees this year. This comes on the heels of a 15 percent yield last year, which was plagued by a late-season freeze in April 2020. Steve and I spoke briefly about how this trend is not remotely sustainable. The growing reality of climate change is worrisome to EFF. Long-term questions abound, such as: Do we diversify? If so, how? What are the positives and negatives of a pivot to agritourism? How do we survive economically and still keep our style and quality of service?
Nevertheless, locals will be able to savor Colorado’s peach season at farmers’ markets and grocery stores beginning mid-July. Most growers are forced to pick early so their peaches can ship farther. This is not the case with EFF peaches, which are hand-picked, hand-packed and meant to sell immediately. The hot days and cold nights of Hotchkiss bring out the natural sugars of the fruit, and the longer a peach remains on the branch, the more delicious it gets. Steve and his team hang their hat on these ideals, and they are an integral reason why Coloradans can be so haughty about the state’s summer treasures.
In response to the last few challenging seasons, Ela Family Farms has started an adopt-a-tree program. Contributions begin at just $5, and every level of giving helps support the orchard's continued growth.
While biting into a juicy Colorado-grown peach is one of the best indulgences of season, the fruit is also an amazing ingredient to cook with. These three recipes are perfect for highlighting peaches' sweet, summery flavor.
Cast-Iron Peaches With Chiles and Goat Cheese
This is kind of like a salad and kind of like a side. Either way, savory dishes with stone fruits are underappreciated. Peaches take really well to a little bit of spice, whether from chiles or baking spices. Serve with grilled pork or chicken.
2 tbsp salted butter
1 lb peaches, halved
1 cup sliced Anaheim peppers
Salt to taste
4 oz goat cheese, crumbled
½ cup cashews or almonds, toasted
1 tbsp honey
Arugula or microgreens to garnish
Heat a large cast-iron skillet on medium high heat and add butter. Once melted, place peaches cut side down in skillet. Do not move the pan! Cook for 4-5 minutes until the peaches are slightly caramelized. Remove peaches to a plate and increase heat to high. Add Anaheim chiles and sprinkle with salt. Sauté 4-5 minutes until soft and charred. Add peaches back in and give the pan a toss to marry the peaches and peppers. Sprinkle on goat cheese, cashews and honey. Remove from heat and serve straight from the cast-iron pan. Garnish with arugula or microgreens on top.
Peach Caprese Salad
This dish is so simple, you hardly even need a recipe (but here’s mine to get you started). As long as you have juicy, ripe peaches, this dish is a home run.
1 cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup honey
3 large peaches, halved, cut into ½ inch slices
1 lb fresh mozzarella, cut into ¼ inch slices
½ cup fresh basil leaves
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp flaky sea salt (I like the Maldon brand)
Stir balsamic vinegar and honey in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer until mixture has reduced to 1/3 cup. Remove from heat and allow to cool. On a serving tray, lay out peach slices, top each with a slice of mozzarella and some basil leaves. Drizzle the top with a few tablespoons of the balsamic reduction and olive oil, and finish with sea salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Peach Icebox Bars
This gluten-free delight comes courtesy of Coperta’s executive pastry chef, Jodi Polson. It may sound fancy, but the payoff from your time is totally worth it. If you're hosting folks for a summer BBQ, this can be made ahead. A semifreddo is like half pudding, half ice cream — and totally delicious!
For the Crust:
9 oz dates
5 oz pecans
1 oz coconut flakes
½ tsp kosher salt
Soak the dates in hot water for 10 minutes to soften. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until mixture comes together and no large pieces remain. Line the bottom of a 9x13 pan with wax or parchment paper and coat with non-stick cooking spray. Press mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan.
For the Peach Semifreddo:
1 ½ lbs peaches (about 5)
6 oz sugar, divided (2 oz, 2 oz, 2 oz)
¼ tsp kosher salt
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla paste
Cut up peaches (leave the skin on) and toss with 2 ounces of sugar. Roast at 350F for about 30 minutes, until super soft and bubbly. Purée immediately. Combine the eggs and another 2 ounces of sugar over a double boiler and whisk constantly until thickened and frothy. Whip cooked egg mixture until super thick and tripled in volume. In a standing mixer, whip cream, final 2 ounces of sugar, and vanilla to soft peaks. Gently fold whipped cream into the whipped eggs. Next, fold in the peach purée. Pour over crust, smooth and freeze at least four hours before cutting and serving.
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