Okanagan or bust
John Lee puts some pressure on his waistband as he explores a valley that is home to one of Canada’s finest food trails The Goatgonzola really packs a punch; suffused with blue streaks, it’s rich, rounded and earthy without being overpowering
BLEARY-EYED after some late-night carousing in Vancouver, I’ve hopped aboard a one-hour early morning flight to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley wine region. Although it is home to more than 100 wineries, the lakeside Okanagan has an even deeper provenance as a farming region responsible for some of western Canada’s finest produce.
With slow-food movements and 100-mile diets gaining momentum in recent years — it was Canadians Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, after all, who drew attention to the concept in their book The 100-Mile Diet — taste-tripping visitors are discovering this region’s rich food heritage.
I focus my trail in and around Kelowna, the Okanagan’s capital, which is home to Seven Six Four, a cosy bistro with a strong commitment to sourcing local produce. Tucking into a late breakfast of soft poached eggs and a thick slice of bacon from Okanagan Sausage, I chat with chef-owner Mark Filatow about the regional bounty.
He says some small producers still seem surprised that he wants to work with them, adding that it can be a logistical challenge dealing with upwards of 20 suppliers.
‘‘ But it feels like the right thing to do, especially when we get the first black cherries of the season or a fresh supply of sweet local tomatoes.’’
Tastebuds piqued, I head for the hills in search of celebrated local cheesemaker Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan, a rustic producer with great views of the valley and a 40-strong herd of hardy but inquisitive goats.
‘‘ They’re lazy today because they know it’s Sunday,’’ says owner Ofri Barmor, as she walks me around the property before we arrive at the winerystyle tasting room.
Many visitors favour the farm’s soft and mild yoghurt, an ideal starter for those who usually find goat cheese too intense. More practised palates often prefer tangy, soft-ripened goat cheese varieties such as the nutty, camembert-style Blue Velvet. But it’s the Goatgonzola that really packs a punch. Suffused with blue streaks, it’s rich, rounded and earthy without being overpowering.
Despite the day’s ever-rising kilojoule intake, it’s soon time for lunch and it’s not long before I’m entering the carved wooden doorway at Summerhill Pyramid Winery. The sparkling wines here are celebrated and I’ve heard that dining on the patio is a highlight of any visit.
Owner Stephen Cipes has built a large concrete pyramid where he ages his wines and I grab an alfresco table with terrific views across the rolling, vine-striped hills. The buffet offerings are organic (as are the wines) and include plenty of crisp salads alongside shrimp wontons and a selection of baked fish and meats. I order a little Peace Chardonnay Icewine for good measure. I am not usually a fan of this sweet dessert tipple, but it turns out to be among the best I’ve tried, with surprisingly subtle sugars and a deep apricot finish.
Up early the following day, the first stop is Andrea McFadden’s Okanagan Lavender farm in south Kelowna. Used to visitors doing self-guided tours of her lavender lines — she grows 60 varieties and dozens of herbs — McFadden is effusive about the variety of culinary uses to which her crop can be put.
Reeling off recipes such as baked cheese with a lavender breadcrumb crust and vegetable skewers threaded on fragrant lavender stems, she adds that the must-have item is herbes des provence, a house blend of oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary and lavender, which adds a surprising lift to fish, meat, soups and stews.
‘‘ People expect a soapy taste but once they try it, they usually like it,’’ says McFadden. ‘‘ We always tell people to use it sparingly, though. Like rosemary, too much can ruin a dish.’’
The same could apply to the honey produced a few streets away by bees that often loiter among McFadden’s lavender plants.
Arlo’s Honey Farm is one of several bee-powered producers in the valley and while owner Helen Kennedy doesn’t offer a formal tour at her small acreage, she’s usually around and always happy to chat with passing honey lovers.
Selling her wares, including mustard and ginger blends, from her farm and at the thrice-weekly Kelowna Farmers Market, Kennedy oversees 20 hives. I learn that the average bee makes one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime and that the queen can lay up to 1200 eggs daily.
I also discover a vital piece of information: one teaspoon of honey every night acts as a natural liver cleanser and is a good dieting strategy. Since I’m already considering trousers with an elasticised waistband on this trip, the advice is a godsend.
But dieting is for another day. Instead, I move on for lunch at Tree Brewing, one of British Columbia’s favourite microbreweries. The brewery’s Fridays-only tour includes a talk, four tastings and a souvenir glass ($C7, or $9), but visitors can also drop by any time for free tastings. I savour the Cutthroat, a sharp, coppercoloured English-style draft, and Hop Head, a flowery, full-bodied India pale ale that is the brewery’s signature tipple.
By early evening, I’m ready for a proper meal so I head to Quail’s Gate Estate Winery to refuel. A threeflight wine tasting here is free — the rhubarby chenin blanc and pleasantly peppery reserve pinot noir are recommended — but the winery’s restaurant is also a foodie favourite, with a menu of BC treats such as Qualicum Bay scallops and Queen Charlotte Island halibut. I happily settle for a butter-soft BC sablefish, served with cauliflower fondue.
En route to the airport the following day, I stop by the Kelowna Farmers Market. There’s not yet any late-summer and autumn harvest fruit available on my visit — I’m a little early for summer and autumn harvests — but I munch on a sesame, ham and cheese pastry and knock back samples of rosehip and quince jams.
Realising that I’ve barely stopped eating since arriving here, I suddenly recall my new-found honey diet. I’d better make that two teaspoons tonight. www.sevensixfour.com www.carmelisgoatcheese.com www.summerhill.bc.ca www.okanaganlavender.com www.treebeer.com www.quailsgate.com www.kelownafarmersandcraftersmarket.com www.tourismkelowna.com
Lakeside setting: The Okanagan Valley’s farming region is responsible for some of western Canada’s finest produce
Rustic producer: Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan has a 40-strong herd producing a range of cheeses