Sometimes an invitation is too intriguing to cause even a momentary hesitation. That was certainly the case when Sparkling Hill resort in the Okanagan suggested that the judges for the Canadian Culinary Championships – ten of us, all told, might wish to spend 24 hours there before driving into Kelowna for our gruelling weekend of work. The kicker was the opportunity to experience the cold spa in the resort’s extraordinary Kurspa. You may have heard of this – it’s quite the rage in Austria and Germany. One strips down to swimming trunks, socks and shoes, gloves and a surgical mask and spends three minutes standing in a chamber with an ambient temperature of minus 110 degrees Centigrade. There is nowhere on earth that naturally reaches such a low temperature – only in space can such cold be found. Why does anybody do it? There are many reasons given, most to do with wellness, but the gist of it is that a person feels so wonderful when it’s over. To be that cold must be extraordinary, we thought, and so it proved. “When you emerge,” explained Hans-Peter Mayr, President and CEO of the resort, “you will feel as if you want to run outside and pull up a tree with your bare hands, the adrenalin-endorphin rush is so strong.” Okay…
In the end, seven of the ten judges decided to go for it. We made a surreal picture, kitted out for the “plunge” (photos were taken and I am spending a fortune trying to have them suppressed), then in we went, three at a time, accompanied by Hans-Peter, who wore a suit and tie. You enter three rooms, the first chilled to minus 10, the second to minus 60, and then into the third… It’s no bigger than an elevator, panelled with wood, and there’s a window through which a controller peers, making sure we don’t overstay our welcome in this frozen circle of hell. The first thing that happens is that the room fills with fog – the frozen carbon dioxide of each exhalation. The first minute is simply really really cold, though the total absence of moisture mitigates it a little. After one minute and 45 seconds, the brain begins to send frantic signals of alarm and the urge to open the door is almost overwhelming. Fifteen seconds later, the panic passes. By now the cold has entered your bones. Shins and pate, elbows and shoulders feel it first. “Like a million little needles,” said one judge. And yet there is physical exhilaration – that endorphin rush. Hans-Peter counted down the last five seconds and we left the chamber quickly and gratefully.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. It has worked marvels with people suffering from depression, inflammation, rheumatism, fibromyalgia… And now I have experienced the deep cold of space and lived to tell the tale.
As spas go, Sparkling Hill is unique in the world. It is owned privately by Mr. Gernot Langes-Swarovski, patriarch of Swarovski crystal company. Built on the peak of a granite mountain with amazing views of Lake Okanagan and the Monashee mountains, it cost $122 million to build and has been decorated with 3.5 million Swarovski crystal pieces – about $10 million worth of scintillating, iridescent glass. The spa itself is vast, with all manner of steam and sauna rooms, water therapy walkways and pools and serenity areas, combining the German idea of a wellness spa with the North American emphasis on pampering. It is, quite simply, breathtaking.
There are several restaurants at Sparkling Hill, including one called Cleanse, where no food is served, just detox concoctions. We had dinner in Gernot’s, the private dining room named for the owner. The chef is a talented young Canadian called Ross Derrick and he started us off by leading us out into the snow and sabreing a bottle of local bubbly, mixing it with local poire Williams, cassis and a dash of vermouth in an Okanagan take on a Kir Royale. Then we went back indoors into the firelit, wood-panelled room and sat down to a splendid dinner. Each course was named for the local artisanal producer who supplied the main ingredients or else, where the first course was concerned, “Farmer’s Market.” It proved to be a most impressive collation of vegetables – beetroot whipped with gelatin to make an ethereal mousse, juicy little cippolini onions, a purée of banana squash, dried leeks and raw radish, carrot pearls and candied parsnip crisps, delectably matched with Township 7 Sauvignon Blanc.
Veronika Falkner was a rabbit terrine. Ms. Falkner is only 16 years old but raises rabbits for market. Chef Derrick had turned them into a moist, dense terrine, wrapped in bacon and sprinkled with a couple of grains of Murray River salt, garnishing it with dots of yellow cherry purée and sour cherry compote, both coming from a grower called Neil Sproule, who may or may not be my relative.
We went on to a succulent little fillet of the first sable fish of the season, pan-fried for a moment then shown the oven, surrounded by tamarind purée for sourness, eggplant with lemon purée, cauliflower florets turned into tender pakoras with turmeric oil, some brown and crispy, others pickled, tender and white.
The main course was Fraser Valley goose, slivered slices of the breast with a tasty fringe of fat, cooked sous vide then roasted. Chef piled them up with crunchy moist braised endive scented with vanilla and citrus and a jumble of supple oyster mushrooms.
Then there was cheese – a sort of blue tête de moine made locally and served with honey spun into sponge toffee – and followed by dessert – an extravaganza of local fruits preserved last summer, made by one of the pastry team, Anne Riemerschmid. I remember tonka bean mousse with a damson plum sauce, rosemary panna cotta with poached pear, a peach foam, a blueberry-blackberry sorbet, a whole cherry hidden in a marzipan coat, a tiny apple strudel and more and more. But all so light and easy.
Sparkling Hill is entirely unique. Check it out on the web site, www.sparklinghill.com, and also check out the prices. The owners have not created this place for a wealthy elite. It costs about as much to stay there as it does in an inn in Muskoka. Amazing.