Karin Wilson: The Road to Culinaria
A light breeze drifts off Okanagan Lake and onto the outdoor patio perched alongside the rolling vineyard at Quail's Gate Estate Winery on the Westside. There's an almost sensual pleasure in the murmurs coming from each table as the servers place impeccably white plates adorned with food creations tempting each and every sense.
A cheese plate offers up craftsman-style cheeses from Poplar Grove in Naramata. On another plate rests a bed of buttery lettuce and fragrant salad greens freshly picked from the garden and then drizzled with vinaigrette concocted from the savoury imagination of Donna Denison from Little Creek Dressing across the way on Westside Road. Fish and beef arrive from further afield, but there's no question this is a celebration of the pride of BC, and a commitment to move food from its roots of strict sustenance into something that nourishes not only the body, but the soul.
It's moments like this that establish the essence of culinary art. This is art as food and food as art, and like so many unique spots in this rich valley of ours, guests here experience the pleasures found when one singular taste commands the mouth to slow down and enjoy.
This kind of attention to food doesn't come over night. It takes the right combination of not only a well-trained chef, but a commitment to acknowledging the best this earth beneath our feet has to offer.
It's no wonder then that the Stewart family is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its connection to the soil of this fertile valley. Meanwhile, across the water, Summerhill Winery celebrates the third anniversary of the Organic Okanagan Festival with talks on sustainability and reminders that the first to cull the land were members of the First Nation community. Rod Butters, at the valley's four-diamond signature restaurant Fresco, continues to conjure up new cuisine while working closely with local producers. That devotion continues throughout the Valley, with newcomers arriving, and oldtimers like Theo's Restaurant expanding on its longstanding commitment to honour the harvest. There is no question, fresh is best, local is best.
It's as though in 100 years we've come full circle. Our Okanagan foreparents marvelled at the wealth they had stumbled across. Like some kind of alchemist's dream, the Valley blossomed with the simple addition of water. Determined pioneers crafted irrigation flumes to channel water down from our hills into the Valley and overnight, it seemed, turned this dry landscape into a vibrant patchwork quilt of farms, orchards, vineyards, and ranch land.
But harvesting the land wasn't enough. These early pioneers had to make something of it. And make it they did, carving out what has become a lengthy path to culinary refinement.
TOILING FOR TOURISTSThe year was 1885 and the United States was hell-bent on hunting down Morman polygamist Charles Ora Card. Determined not to elude his captors, Card made his way north to Canada and on one October day recorded in his diary how he stumbled across Micheal Keogan's fruit stand in Okanagan Falls with enough tomatoes and peaches to feed a battalion.
It was the reference to peaches that brought Randy Manuel to a stand-still. The retired curator of the Penticton Museum and now city councillor says it takes years for a tree to produce peaches, let alone enough to sell off. Card's singular diary entry provided proof that food production was alive and thriving, and that year anyway, the peach season was long and had eluded the usual fall frost.
There was no such thing as "culinary arts" in those days, but that doesn't mean the art form didn't exist. In fact, there was a singular dedication to quality, and that turned up in uncovered menu cards and notes. In 1893 Penticton laid claim to becoming the sun worshipper's northern capital with the opening building of Hotel Penticton. The hotel had its own farm that provided produce, including tomatoes and asparagus, along with range land for poultry and lamb all to serve visitors to the upscale dining room.
An overnight stay at the Hotel Penticton could be followed with a trip on the Kettle Valley Railway. There too fine dining had reached its own zenith. Menu cards of the day revealed travellers feasted on seasonal produce, nestled alongside roast beef or steak. No one mentioned the beef was grain-fed. There were no other options then. Everything had to be fresh because there was no refrigeration. Dining was an experience, complete with white china, finger bowls and sparkling crystal. And there were many many people to feed. The Kettle Valley Railway alone owned several acres of land that was used specifically for food production. Supplementing the cost of this was the work of many Asian immigrants who washed the table linen in the laundry room, tended the farms, and cooked in the kitchens.
Around the same time, Giovanni Casorso made his way from Italy to what was is now known as Father Pandosy's Mission and became one of the first growers in the region. He raised nine children, who carried on their father's entrepreneurial spirit. By the 1940s, one branch of the family established The Sanitary Market a butcher shop that eventually expanded to include stores in Vernon, Penticton and Kamloops. Another son took his Italian heritage in a different direction. He planted the Sovereign Opal vine, which soon supplied Kelowna's first winery Calona Wines.
And in Westbank, David Gellatly arrived in Scotland later inviting his brother Jack to join him. The two would cultivate Canada's first commercial nut farm that produced new varieties of walnuts, heartnuts, filberts and chestnuts around the world.
And if there was any question whether the Okanagan Valley would become known worldwide, the signature art of the apple boxes put that question to rest. To this day, the image of the Ogopogo Brand with the serpent holding an apple in its mouth evokes unmistakeable memories of the 1930s. Orchard Museum curator Wayne Wilson says it was perfect marriage of food with art, and one of many images created by Vancouver artists to sell Okanagan produce to the world.
PORTAL TO THE FUTUREThose early days provided the foundation for culinary arts, but then came what could be considered the doldrums when people in the Okanagan Valley, like most of Canada, spent much of the mid-1900s infatuated with the marvels of modern-day preservatives and mass-scale manufacturing. In the 1950s, when Coca-Cola was king and marshmallow squares were the height of après-school cuisine, it seemed almost quaint to consider something garden-fresh a sign of scaling culinary heights.
It took until the 1970s for any semblance of local appreciation to return, no doubt inspired in part by the counterculture movement and its fascination with all things organic. Fortunately, there were newcomers to the valley who made it their mission to work with local growers. One of those was Theo's Restaurant in Penticton, which opened its doors in 1976s infusing its Greek cuisine with local compatible flavours.
But it was arguably changes to the wine industry that made the region take its next big jump in true commitment to the culinary arts.
With the advent of free trade, in 1988 grape growers pulled out their old vines and replaced them with new varieties deemed more attractive to an international marketplace. The plan quickly paid off, but it also offered a new challenge should the winery experience include food?
Today some of the best restaurants in the Valley are located alongside the wineries. It's simply a natural pairing. But Harry McWatters vividly remembers that wasn't the case back in 1986. In fact, many people within government and the restaurant industry were adamantly opposed to bringing food into the wine experience at all. Critics saw the concept as not only providing unnecessary competition to existing restaurants, but also having the potential of attracting a wine-guzzling clientele (read: noisy and drunk) into their quiet neighbourhoods.
At that time, McWatters had a leg up on the winery competition. That's because he purchased a golf course in Summerland, and planted the vineyard next to the course. The golf course was permitted to have a restaurant, so everything was perfect, until he decided to sell the golf course. Government regulations of the day permitted the public to bash a ball around after consuming fine wine, but not to eat dinner at a winery.
As the owner of a restaurant already, McWatters had a definitely leg up on his competition. But there were others, like Sandra Kochan at Hainle Vineyards in Peachland, who were lobbying government just as hard. Kochan worked with her neighbours first, easing their concerns that their family-operated winery was going to become a local party house. Then she relentlessly worked on convincing government, and the local restauranteurs, that this was a good thing. McWatters and Kochan won the day, but it took five years of hard work to get there.
During that time, Kochan established the winery as a home for what was then affectionately referred to as "foodies." It was the early 1990s, and she created relationships with local producers, experimented with recipes, and invited renowned chefs to prepare meals for guests including Rod Butters, the celebrated chef of Wickaninnish Inn on Vancouver Island. In a few short years, Butters would leave the Island to open up what would quickly become the Okanagan's first four-diamond restaurant Fresco, once more with a devotion to local produce.
TOO RICH FOR CONSUMPTIONToday there's little question that the marriage of food with the wine industry has elevated the culinary arts to where they are today in the valley. But there's a new bugaboo that's threatening to topple what's been created the cost of land.
While ecological pundits are urging people to embrace the 100-Mile Diet, farmers in the Okanagan Valley are having a hard time providing the goods, warns Cathryn Wellner, who recently retired from the Interior Health. A long-time advocate for community food programs, Wellner says food production in the Okanagan has become the purview of the wealthy, and one only needs to look at the price of land to see that's the case. Restaurants may want to boast their bruschetta is made from heritage tomatoes, but few growers can afford to till the land. Their children aren't willing to harvest for a pittance, and so a generation of farmers are under siege. At a recent Okanagan Institute event, Wellner argued that it is almost criminal that we as a society demand that our farmers pay the financial price to provide the rest of us with food.
Instead, much of our commodity-based culture has removed the "art" from food, and opted instead for consumerism turning food into something to be processed, boxed and packaged. If the price to the end consumer is less, then it no longer matters how much preservative needs to be in that baked bread to feed our families. If the product gets shipped from China, India or even Alabama, what of it? So long as the price remains low.
What we're losing in the process is so much more than quality. We're losing control over own food production, we're losing our link to the land, and we're losing our creative relationship with what we eat.
Wellner argues that dragging a burlap sack to a farmer's market and filling it up with an artisan baguette, fresh arugula, and a jar of apricot comfit offers up not only more nutritional value, but more community value. If we pay more, our farmers survive. And we give them a chance that their children will be willing to grow the business so future generations can benefit.
JUST DESSERTSSo here we are in 2008 with all the hoopla about the 100-Mile Diet and it seems in the Okanagan Valley we've come full circle.
It was only in 2001 that the BC Government decided to cut funding to the nearly 10-year-old Buy BC program. People considered it a ludicrous decision at the time. Now it seems simply downright regressive. The program continues through the BC Agriculture Council, but now it's up to producers themselves to provide the funding. The council has kept the buy-in costs low, but it's still asking a lot. Marketing these days is a high-cost game and face it, small producers will never have the financial clout of large-scale manufacturers. And it is the very nature of being a small producer that offers the quality-assurance, ambiance and interest.
That's what we want these days. It's not good enough to simply be locally produced any more. We need the culinary arts because it reminds us of our natural earthly riches. There is nothing quite like chewing on a divinely salty nicoise olive while basking in the Mediterranean sun. The same can be said of biting into a succulent Okanagan peach, but it's no longer enough to just offer up the fruit. The art comes in marrying what comes from the earth with our fertile imaginations, resulting in a heaven-sent combination capable of nourishing mind, body and soul.
Sadly, there are still some who believe that eating close to home is akin to some kind of back-to-the-land earthiness many recall from the granola days of the 70s. Vestiges of those days past can still be found, but thankfully in roadside fruit stands and farmer's markets few and far between. At a recent farmers' market in Nelson, the only living creature circling a baking tray of crudely crafted butter tarts were the flies. Bragging rights of "homemade" have lost clearly lost their appeal.
But what is equally true is that the future of food both from a food security sense and an economic sense, does in fact lie in the establishment and elevation of a thriving culinary arts culture for the Okanagan.
David Bond, the former chief economist for the Hong Kong Bank of Canada and now executive director of the Association of Grape Growers, believes this region is a hot bed for culinary tourism. We have literally everything here, and it's up to us to let the world know it.
Nearly 20 years ago, at the dawn of Valley's newly thriving winery movement, the government saw fit to punctuate Highway 97 with blue and white signs carving out a "wine route" for tourists. Since those days, the route has expanded to become more of an epicurean trail including local sources of pride like Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan which continues to thrive in the midst of the Ponderosa forest tortured in the 2003 Okanagan Fire. But the food representation like Carmelis is few and far between. Pity the poor tourists who don't even know what they're missing when they zoom past the signs, often obscured by foliage, on route to the nearest McDonald's.
The thing is, the future of the Okanagan Valley culinary arts lies in marketing, and it's one role that government should be supporting in a much larger way than it does. In England, there's a longstanding tradition that anything that lands on the Queen's table is entitled to a label marked "by appointment to the Queen". You think she doesn't have taste? Just try Robertson's Green Gage plum jam a true nectar of the gods, let alone dear Elizabeth.
For far too long our governments have
operated on the assumption that what needs and requires support are those who are the
growers, or the harvesters of the resource whether
that resource is mining for minerals or mining
fruit from our trees. As a result, the ministry of
agriculture pours money into assisting the growers, but little assistance to aid the rich products
of that industry. This year, the ministry of
agriculture announced it had contributed to funding
a brochure highlighting farmers markets throughout the province an industry it says
contributed $118-million annually to the BC
economy. The brochure would be available at tourism
centres. That's nice, for the travelling tourist
who takes the time to drop into those tourism centres. But who does? This year the one of the
first tourism info stops coming off the Connector
in Westbank reported a significant drop in
visitors. Face it, we need to get these brochures into
the hands of homeowners not just into
Not too long ago President's Choice, in effort to draw attention to its own commitment to "buy quality", produced a TV ad featuring an Okanagan grower. Government could take a page from that book and produce a series of ads that highlight what people in this valley are doing from the farmer's markets to the salad dressing producers and artisan cheese makers, to the innovative restaurateurs.
But it's not only up to government to promote the big picture, it's up to us as residents to celebrate what we have right under our feet. This doesn't have to a be a pursuit of the wealthy.
While it's true, high-end restaurants attract the high-end tourists that contribute to the larger economic community, it's also true that these restaurants help to keep our local farmers alive. It provides them with a larger venue to market what they have to offer, so they can continue to live on the land that feeds us all.
For those of us willing to spend $100 or more on a fine dining experience, the Okanagan Valley has revealed that it has true potential, with growers not only understanding what is required to yield satisfying flavourful crops, but chefs prepared to take the time, and patience to craft dishes that pay suitable homage to our local producers.
But this doesn't have to be a passionate pursuit of the wealthy. As Wendell Berry, author of What are People For, suggests, we all have a role to play in creating culinary art.
First, we can learn to prepare our own food. Get into the kitchen. Get your hands dirty. Pluck the ripe tomato from your lovingly tendered plant and transform it into an exquisite sauce. You'll save money, and save gas from heading to the grocery story, and ensure the family doesn't ingest more multi-syllabic chemicals.
Second shop at local farmer's markets,
and once the season ends, pay attention to where
the produce is coming from. Shop in season. Yes, that means the winter months will likely be
Third put on your critical thinking cap in the grocery stores. Check labels not only for calorie content, but those additional items. What is listed in your food that is not essentially "food". How much are you paying for that not only in dollars? Is it worth it?
Fourth re-consider the value of the
"lite" diet. An argument can be made that food
that tastes good feeds the mind, body and soul. A small pat of butter is worth in flavour more
Our time spent hiding under the bushel of our own unimportance has long since past. We've spent 100 years cultivating this land, understanding its wealth, and now it's time to capitalize on that. And it doesn't have to be a case of haves and have-nots. We can all thrive from the farmers, to the food banks, if we make the decision to truly work together and support what we grow locally.
Karen Wilson is a freelance writer for CBC Radio and numerous magazines. She is the Associate Director of the Okanagan Institute and Convener of its Express weekly presentations.