Bushel baskets piled high with red-cheeked peaches, bins of Gala apples, boxes of Bartlett pears - I can't resist the bounty of Colorado's Grand Valley. From the first blossoms of spring until snow covers the last unclaimed pumpkins, I'm drawn to this fertile region for fresh produce and quality local products.
While one-stop shopping at any of the numerous produce stands could fill my needs, the hunter/gatherer in me loves to spend the day wandering Colorado's back roads, meeting the growers and sampling their treasures.
With a "Fruit & Winery Guide" in hand, I start in Palisade. It's hard to miss Herman Produce with its bright coat of peachy pink paint and green trim. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, Herman Produce carries a large selection of Colorado gourmet food items. When I get to the spicy salsas, the hard part comes in narrowing down the ones to add to my basket.
On the east side of the Colorado River is Ball Fruit. There, Bonnie Ball encourages shoppers to taste test before purchase, while Leroy Ball sorts the latest peach harvest for size and quality. Typical of growers throughout the region, the Balls eagerly share storage tips and preparation suggestions.
"Would you like to try a Crest Haven?" asks gregarious Barbara Bikki, who welcomes visitors to her Ranch of Liberty orchard stand. Barbara and her husband, Leslie, came to Grand Junction during harvest season in 1957, escapees from communist Hungary. Leslie picked peaches for 15 cents a bushel. Barbara frequently shares their fascinating story and love for America with visitors. I depart not only with boxes of fruit, but a strong sense of patriotism and faith.
During a stop at DeBeque Canyon Winery, I meet a couple from Steamboat Springs. They're spending the day cycling Colorado's patchwork landscape of wineries and orchards, and planning purchases for the next day before heading home from Grand Junction.
Juices pressed from a combination of tart and sweet apples blend to create the distinctive Mountain Gold brand of apple cider at Talbott's. A visit to their market includes a tour of the cider mill and cool sips on the country porch. Although I can purchase Mountain Gold in my local market, there's something sweeter about buying direct.
The day's shopping concludes at Alida's Fruits where I add Olathe sweet corn and Jonathan apples to my stash. Colorado peach salsa, fruit-flavored applesauces, ice cream toppings, jams, jellies and syrups - Alida's Fruits products make great gifts as well as supplies for the pantry.
Those with less time find farmers' markets a great way to sample local fare during summer. On Thursday evenings, Grand Junction's Farmers' Market Festival (5-8:30 p.m., mid-June through mid-September) fills several downtown blocks with just picked produce, local products, and floral fantasies. Artisans, crafters, musicians, and wine and produce vendors gather for the Fruita Farmers' Market on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., while Palisade hosts a Sunday Market from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. mid-June to mid-October).
Special events add fun and festivities to seasonal calendars. Palisade Peach Festival in August highlights the peak of the peach season with a pancake breakfast, parade, recipe contest, music, and of course a peach eating contest. The third weekend in September, Palisade's Riverbend Park fills to the brim for the Colorado Mountain Winefest. Winetastings, chef demonstrations, bike tour, live jazz, and grape stomp keep celebrants busy. Cross Orchards Historic Site salutes the area's early fruit growers during the annual Chatauqua.
Cherries, peaches, apples, salsas, jams, and wines - the flavors of Colorado's Grand Valley linger long after each visit.