Fol­low­ing Ver­non’s Culi­nary Trail

When I came in search of food ex­pe­ri­ences in Bri­tish Columbia’s North Okana­gan Val­ley, I didn’t ex­pect to find my­self HERE.

Taste & Travel - - Contents - By CATHER­INE VAN BRUNSCHOT

CATHER­INE VAN BRUNSCHOT ex­plores Bri­tish Columbia's North Okana­gan Val­ley.

PINE FORESTS tum­ble down the Monashee moun­tains and cot­ton­woods throw shad­ows over the ca­noe, as I float with seven other pad­dlers down the Shuswap River. Other shad­ows flit be­low the wa­ter: Chi­nook and Sock­eye salmon re­turn­ing to their birth­place to spawn. A Bald Ea­gle whis­tles from a tall snag, but be­fore I can lo­cate his part­ner, my guide, Charles Ruechel, sounds his call to stroke hard on my side of the ca­noe. By the time we clear the ‘sweeper’ — a tree laid low over the wa­ter — we’ve left the ea­gle be­hind. No mat­ter. Min­utes later, an­other ea­gle splits the Oc­to­ber sky.

Ar­guably, the culi­nary his­tory of this area be­gins with the salmon, which have sus­tained the Splatsin First Na­tions here for thou­sands of years. But we haven’t come to fish. Charles’ mis­sion is big­ger than that: to con­nect us — and all of his EL­E­MENTS Ad­ven­ture clients — per­son­ally to Mother Na­ture, for our well­be­ing and for hers, too. With each back­coun­try story, each wild trea­sure ob­served, his pas­sion grows more pal­pa­ble — and more than a lit­tle con­ta­gious.

While my ad­ven­ture with Charles seems an un­likely start to my culi­nary ex­plo­ration here, he’s an ideal usher into the food com­mu­nity. He grew up on a lo­cal or­ganic sheep and cat­tle ranch; co-man­aged it for ten years. He lives in an or­chard just out­side the city of Ver­non. He leads wild mushroom hunt­ing tours in the fall. Sadly, I’ve missed the win­dow for mushroom for­ag­ing. So I launch my own food hunt­ing trip on the streets of Ver­non — and dis­cover that Charles’ deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Na­ture’s gifts is a com­mon af­flic­tion. Case in point are the folks at Planet

Bee honey farm and mead­ery. They wel­come me as I step into the shop, and of­fer to tell me about the bees in the dis­play hive, if I’m so in­clined. I’m soon em­broiled in the in­tri­ca­cies of bee so­ci­ety, where hard­work­ing fe­males rule (the males are kicked out once their re­pro­duc­tive duty is done), pro­cre­ation is rife with adap­ta­tion (af­ter just one mat­ing sea­son, the queen can lay eggs for three to five years), and the im­por­tance of in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions to the suc­cess of the whole reaches its great­est ex­pres­sion.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing and heady stuff — and war­rants a long pause at the tast­ing bars for two dozen honey sam­ples and five flavours of mead. The blue­berry mead tempts with dis­tinct tan­nins and com­plex­ity, but I scoop a jar of Okana­gan Gold honey in­stead — a once-ev­eryfew-years va­ri­ety that oc­curs when bees in­clude a bit of clover along with their typ­i­cal multi-flo­ral for­ag­ing.

Around the cor­ner lies an­other fam­ily’s busi­ness, with roots so deep that the road is named af­ter them. Davison

Or­chards has farmed these slopes since 1933; grow­ing just ap­ples at first, then toma­toes, pep­pers, and — judg­ing by the over­flow­ing bins — pump­kins and all man­ner of squash. The faux coun­try vil­lage is a taster’s dream, with scores of jams and sal­sas, fruit but­ters and pick­les, while the 1944 farm­house dubbed Aun­tie May’s Deep Dish Cafe serves hand­made fruit pies along with the wide val­ley view. I’ve no time to take the or­chard tour. But as I make a dif­fi­cult choice be­tween maple pump­kin scones and the sig­na­ture ap­ple pie, I learn there re­ally was an Aun­tie May: the fam­ily ma­tri­arch came as a young bride from Eng­land, and ran the or­chard with her teenaged nephew af­ter her hus­band passed away.

Ver­non was in the throes of the Great De­pres­sion when May Davison ar­rived in the val­ley. But the city was founded on boom times dur­ing the Cari­boo gold rush, and the next stop on the tast­ing trail boasts strong ties to those early days — and to an en­ter­pris­ing man named Fran­cis Jones Barnard.

Seems Barnard saw a niche in the 1860s for pack­ing mail in and out of the gold­fields. He landed the govern­ment postal con­tract and cre­ated the Barnard Ex­press, a wildly suc­cess­ful com­pany that pro­vided stage ser­vice through­out the BC in­te­rior. At its peak, the com­pany ri­valled Wells Fargo in size, and to power all those wag­ons, Barnard built a 6000-acre horse op­er­a­tion called the BX Ranch. Tech­nol­ogy marched on­ward; with rail and auto came the stage­coach’s

demise. BX Ranch be­gan to be par­celled off, and on one of those parcels the Dobernigg fam­ily launched its three-gen­er­a­tion stew­ard­ship of a 30-acre or­chard.

Fast for­ward to the 21st cen­tury, when some­thing of Barnard’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit must have kin­dled Dave and Melissa Dobernigg’s de­ci­sion to graft heir­loom cider ap­ples onto their Golden De­li­cious trees. But since the 2014 open­ing of the BX Press Cidery, the ac­co­lades haven’t stopped for their crisp, dry brews fer­mented with lo­cal yeasts and hops. The ciders sell out ev­ery sea­son de­spite pro­duc­tion dou­bling ev­ery year. Melissa was named one of Greater Ver­non’s Top 20 Un­der 40. The cidery cap­tures the BX hey­days with la­bels like The Prospec­tor (their flag­ship English­style brew) and the dry-hopped Crack­Whip. While I yearn for the whisky-bar­rel-oaked Duf­ferin, I’m lucky to score a bot­tle of the tart and tasty Cran­berry Cinnamon, one of BX Press’ sea­sonal botan­i­cals.

The fa­cades of down­town Ver­non also cap­ture the tracks of lo­cal his­tory — and have yet to be firmly gen­tri­fied. Here, an Art Deco theatre fea­tures this year’s Os­car con­tenders; a Chicago brick-and-cor­niced for­mer hard­ware store touts an­tique decor. Sev­en­ties ar­chi­tec­ture makes mul­ti­ple ap­pear­ances among the re­stored boom­town store­fronts. I lose my­self in the well-stocked Prac­ti­cal Kitchen store; breathe the herbal bou­quet of Te­assen­tials; pon­der op­ti­mum pair­ings of olive oils and bal­samic vine­gars in the Olive

Us tast­ing room. A dash into Ver­non’s own or­ganic gro­cery chain, Na­ture’s Fare, yields wedges of rawmilk Con­ti­nen­tal Blue from lo­cal Ter­roir Cheese and a creamy brie-style for­maggella from nearby Bella Stella. Pop­u­lar main­street restau­rants like The Curry Pot,

Bam­boo Beach, Kawakubo, and Los Hue­sos speak to waves of mi­gra­tion to the val­ley. Though the aro­mas and chat­ter leak­ing from their door­ways lure me to other lat­i­tudes, I’m quest­ing for lo­cal and sea­sonal — and I find it in the art-filled heart of Mid­town Bistro. Here the head­lin­ers are the Cae­sar cock­tails crowned with cheese­burger slid­ers. The real story, how­ever, is in the de­tails: the sea­soned glass-rim­mer from Olive Us across the street, the cheese slices from Vil­lage Cheese up the road, the buns from Sweet Caro­line’s across town. A menu of beau­ti­fully ren­dered com­fort food changes with what’s on deck at the Farm­ers’ Mar­ket.

Ded­i­ca­tion to craft and com­mu­nity touch ev­ery­thing here, from the friendly-but-per­fect ser­vice to the live Fri­day night lo­cal mu­sic ses­sions. It’s a place where af­ter­noon con­ver­sa­tions are thought­ful and in­ter­est­ing and the server looks at me like I might be, too.

Plumb­ing Ver­non’s down­town din­ing scene re­quires sev­eral ex­pe­di­tions. For a hearty break­fast of Eggs Benny or a Mex­i­can Skil­let, I head early to the bus sta­tion to beat the lo­cals and trav­ellers pack­ing cozy EATol­ogy from 6:30 am to its 3:00 pm clos­ing.

The chalk­board menu be­hind the counter boasts all­day break­fasts, home­made soups, cre­ative sal­ads, sand­wiches and hot spe­cials — and the peren­ni­ally cheer­ful staff keep the crowds com­ing back. For an os­ten­si­bly lighter bite, I join the queue at sunny

Ra­tio Cof­fee and Pas­try. An­drew McWil­liam al­ready ran a beloved down­town cof­fee cart when he de­cided to tap pas­try chef Lau­rie Knuever for a sweet sup­ple­ment to his fine roasted pour-over cof­fee. Their one-off Dough­nut Day launched a ver­i­ta­ble stam­pede — one that hasn’t sub­sided since they set up shop to­gether in the for­mer CP Rail Sta­tion in 2015. Now Lau­rie’s Galette Mon­days give way to Éclair Tues­days, Cake Wed­nes­days to Strudel Thurs­days, and Fri­days are leg­endary with dough­nut artistry that be­lies its hum­ble deep-fried ori­gins.

Next door, Eric and Tanya Wisse have got their smoker go­ing at Sta­tion BBQ Smoke­house, serv­ing au­then­tic South­ern bar­be­cue along with an ar­ray of house-made sauces. Bar­be­cue afi­ciona­dos give it a re­sound­ing thumbs-up, and the fork-ten­der beef brisket with Af­ter­burner sauce con­verts even my cold North­ern heart.

An­other newish-kid-on-the-block dom­i­nates main­street’s busiest cor­ner. The glass-en­closed fer­men­ta­tion tanks at Marten Brew­ing Com­pany’s Brew

Pub & Grill leave no doubt as to the pri­or­i­ties here. Tak­ing my cue, I or­der a flight of the cur­rent tap of­fer­ings: a South Ger­man-style Je­feweizen, the Ok­to­ber­fest-Marzen, a pun­ster’s Rye NOT Lager, and Lunkhead Lager, a crowd­pleaser that’s be­come a Marten stan­dard. Still, the pearl in Ver­non’s li­ba­tions oys­ter may be

Okana­gan Spir­its Craft Dis­tillery, named Dis­tiller of the Year at both the 2013 and 2015 World Spir­its Awards. The dis­tillery — which uses all-Okana­gan fruit and grain — medalled in ev­ery one of its prod­uct cat­e­gories in 2015, and its Laird of Fin­try whisky be­came Canada’s first sin­gle malt to win gold.

The Laird’s not to be had when I visit the cav­ernous tast­ing room: this whisky sells only by lot­tery. In­stead, I take a joyous jun­ket through the ab­sinthe and fruit brandies, and suc­cumb to a rhubarb liqueur that’s crisp and tart. In one of those cu­ri­ous con­nec­tions of the al­co­hol-tainted brain, the liqueur’s salmon blush re­minds me of my Sock­eye en­counter on the Shuswap River — and I won­der where I’ve stashed the phone num­ber for Charles Ruechel. There’s still wild mush­rooms to be found next fall.

CATHER­INE VAN BRUNSCHOT’s drive through the Rock­ies back to her Cal­gary home was de­li­ciously fu­elled by Davison’s maple pump­kin scones. (She’s sav­ing the pie for next time). Read more of her work at www.cather­inevan­brun­schot.com

Over­look­ing Ver­non. THIS PHOTO

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