Farmers, food buffs promote Rocky Ford cantaloupes at cook-off – The Denver Post
Cantaloupe farmers, chefs and enthusiasts came together Sunday for an afternoon cook-off that easily could have been broadcast on the Food Network.
The fifth Rocky Ford Cantaloupe Creations Cook-off was held for the second year in a row at Little Man Ice Cream shop in northwest Denver.
“We’re promoting cantaloupe for the Rocky Ford Growers Association,” said Matthew Proctor, a fourth-generation farmer from Rocky Ford, about an hour’s drive east of Pueblo. “We just want the people to be aware and be able to enjoy our produce.”
Five years ago, a listeria outbreak across multiple states tarnished the name of the famous melons after cantaloupes from Jensen Farms spread the disease. Even though the farm, in Holly, was nearly 90 miles from Rocky Ford, its cantaloupes bore the town name.
Diane Mulligan, spokeswoman for the growers association, said that left Rocky Ford with an undue stigma.
“They were called Rocky Ford melons because the Rocky Ford name wasn’t trademarked,” Mulligan said. Cantaloupes from Rocky Ford have had a perfect safety record for nearly 130 years, she said.
So Rocky Ford farmers got together and invested more than $1 million and built a new packing shed, hired new safety managers and worked with universities around the country to implement top safety procedures, Mulligan said, to clear the name.
That group of farm families, including Hirakata Farms, became a growers association and trademarked the Rocky Ford cantaloupe name. Now it sponsor the cook-off every year.
“Some of the top chefs in town are here,” said Mulligan, noting that the competition’s four chefs are members of the Colorado Chefs Association, a chapter of the American Culinary Federation. The association partners with the cook-off each year.
A handful of attendees sat in the cook-off tent area as the chefs prepared multiple dishes for judging by Pat Woodard from KOA Newsradio, Katie LaSalle of Denver7 and Basha Cohen from Little Man Ice Cream. About eight attendees dug into the cantaloupe-topped crab cakes before the crowd of Little Man customers nearby were offered some — and the plate went fast.
“I think this is important,” said Adam Walter, husband of Katie Ruze Walter, one of the competing chefs. “This is really good to try to rebuild the interest in buying cantaloupes again (after the outbreak).”
Although even in 2011 and every year since, the famously sweet Rocky Farms cantaloupes have sold out, according to Mulligan.
“My friend and I came out to have some Little Man ice cream because it’s a nice day, and I noticed the (cook-off) tent,” said Ji Kim, a 33-year-old Denver resident. “It’s a fun event, so serendipitous.”
Kim said she hasn’t had much of a chance to do much farmers market shopping recently.
“I heard of the Rocky Ford cantaloupes in passing, so I’m really glad they’re having this event,” Kim said. Little Man Ice Cream serves cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon flavors made with Rocky Ford melons in the late summer and early fall, said Sarah Beatty, a spokeswoman for the growers association.
LaSalle said she’d always wanted to do an event like this.
“I’ve watched a lot of cooking shows,” she laughed. “Being able to support our local farmers and growers in an event that incorporates a Denver Highlands staple in a tasty way, I’m proud to be a part of this event.”
Katie Walter didn’t know many ways to cook with cantaloupe before but plans to do the event next year.
“I wanted to practice making melon balls (before),” she said, adding that once she tried the Rocky Ford cantaloupes, it was “like night and day.”
“The Rocky Ford cantaloupes are to die for,” Walter said.
“They melt in your mouth.”