Our annual trip to Kelowna for the Canadian Culinary Championships is always a highlight of my year, not least because it offers a chance to get to know more about this extraordinary valley. Home for the long weekend is the stylishly retro, discreetly luxurious Eldorado hotel, right on the shores of the lake – a placid body of water that never seems to freeze, even in February when the ski slopes in the surrounding mountains are choked with snow. And for the last couple of years, Tourism Kelowna has generously organized a tour of the area for the posse of judges (the Senior Judge from each Gold Medal Plates city) who fly in to adjudicate the Championships with me. Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna puts our day together and this year’s trip surpassed all our expectations.
We began very early with a visit to Bean Scene Coffee Works on Dickson Avenue for freshly baked muffins and a truly first class cup of joe. This is the actual roastery and bakery for the other two Bean Scene cafés and it’s something of a local secret, very much a labour of love on the part of the owners, John Anderson and his partner Deb Synnot. Old school? Such an understatement. John acquired a vintage small-batch roaster (no computers here) and then devised a homespun but brilliant system to clean the smoke that the roaster produces using water filters instead of high-energy incinerators. The only by-product is a nitrogen rich liquid that he uses to water the trees outside the café. “No gimmicks, keep everything simple,” is John’s motto, but there’s nothing simple about the coffees he serves. The aroma is heavenly, the flavour rich and complex, medium-roasted and pitched somewhere between acidity and carbon, “between a lemon and a match,” as John puts it. He roasts single-origin coffees from Mexico, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Sumatra and El Salvador and mixes all five for his profound espresso blend. We ate freshly baked cornmeal muffins and lingered over our capuccinos, then set off for the next gastronomic adventure.
Jim and Lorena Wood live on their six-acre, organic, mixed-orchard farm and they were waiting for us as we parked our vans in the snowy driveway. Lorena’s three-month-old granddaughter, Sage, was in her arms, well-bundled-up, and a pot of hot apple cider was seething aromatically on the barbecue. We munched on wonderfully sweet little red Fuji apples while Jim told us the story of the 1928 farmhouse, how they used to use goats and sheep to “mow” the orchards, and how they started a small farmgate business for their fruits and vegetables, eight years ago. Eventually top chefs found their way to the farm (he has another eight acres where they farm organic vegetables), fell in love with the quality and the Woods’s philosophy and are now customers. Red Haven, Glow Haven, Canadian Harmony and raretown white peaches, cherries and apples, chickens and eggs… We sipped a cocktail of Cipes sparkling wine and the farm’s own organic apple juice – a nectar that knocks your Bellini out of the park.
On to Okanagan Spirits, a 10-year-old craft distillery in downtown Kelowna where awesome eaux-de-vie, fruit liqueurs and spirits are alchemized from a gleaming German 250-Litre copper pot still that looks like a steam-punk time machine at the back of the store. This is something that anyone who comes to Kelowna should see, especially if you share my innocent passion for unique distillates. They’re working on a single malt whisky that they enchant with a dash of fruit spirits. I have a phobia against adulterated whiskies but this one was remarkably good – not sweet, just ameliorated with a faint aroma of stone fruit. We judges tried one eaux de vie. Then another. Soon we were working our way through the entire repertoire including “Canados,” a remarkable, dry, spicy local version of Calvados (this is apple country, after all, in the way that the garden of Eden was apple country) made with Hyslop crab apples, and finally a nip of Taboo, the distillery’s pungent absinthe. We could happily have stayed all afternoon but lunch awaited us around the corner at the extraordinary RauDZ Regional table, the very cool restaurant owned and operated by Chef Rod Butters and Audrey Surrao.
They had opened at lunchtime for the first time in their history to accommodate the CCC judges. “And the last time,” said Chef Butters with a smile, as we scrambled up onto bar stools, wondering what to expect. They don’t have a bartender at RauDZ, they have “liquid chef” Micah Jensen who had organized a progression of cocktails for us to try, examples of his “farm-to-glass” philosophy. The first of them arrived in a Mason jar, a Quince Gin Mule, made with local Spirit Bear gin, quince puree from O’Neil farm and the dry, dazzling, English Fentiman’s ginger beer. A delightful palate cleanser, herbal and spicy, designed to refresh but also to showcase the lavender in the gin.
And then the little edible treats began to appear. There were miniature jars of tuna slow cooked in grapeseed oil. There was wholly unexpected smoked sockeye salmon from Lake Okanagan, coaxed back up the Columbia river and into these waters and caught by First Nations people. Chef served it with the tiny citrus beads squeezed from finger limes. Then a can of mushroom soup – literally served in a can with a label created for our visit (click on the image above – it’s a good read) – to be poured into a cup already harbouring morels and other wild mushrooms. And there were beers to sample, including Vertical Winter Ale from local Tree brewery, flavoured with vanilla and heady with nut and caramel aromas, and Red Wood, an ale aged for a hundred days in red wine barrels and showing a subtle nutmeg flavour.Plates of venison carpaccio appeared, dressed with mustard sauce and julienned apple. An array of charcuterie came from Seedo’s in Salmon Arm – Chef Butters believes that charcuterie should be left to the experts and the chorizo, cervelat, salami and spicy biltong added weight to his argument. Micah Jensen presented a second cocktail with the meat, a Vanilla Sky made with Tree’s winter ale and whisky – oaky and smoky and sweetened with beautiful honey from Arlo’s honey farm on Bedford Lane.
And the food kept on coming, all of it true to Chef Butters’s once-radical, now-orthodox belief in the virtue of locally sourced ingredients. The main course was a dish of pan-browned sage gnocchi topped with the applewood-smoked breast meat and confited leg meat of Pekin ducks from Feather Farms, an operation owned by the parents of RauDZ sous chef Evelyn Takoff. There were perfectly fried duck eggs on top of the tender confit mountain and she advised us to break them open so that the runny, dark yellow yolks seeped down over the meat as a heavenly sauce. Then there were four cheeses from the valley’s Upper Bench Creamery including a semi-soft blue called King Cole and a fabulous soft goat cheese called Grey Baby. Not to be outdone, Micah Jensen mixed us Poached Pear Cocktails of pear vodka from Okanagan Spirits mixed with cointreau, red pear purée, lemon juice and, as a final float, port spiced-up with anise, cinnamon, vanilla and blood orange peel. Little triangles of soft, moist Christmas cake were the perfect accompaniment.
We needed a walk after that spectacular lunch and we got it at Suncatcher Farm, where Tony and Nancy Cetinski cultivate organic vegetables on their precious six acres right next to the first permanent white settlement in the Okanagan, where Father Pandosy built his mission in 1859. Tony Cetinski is a witty guy who cherishes the land he bought in 2001 – land that has been farmed for well over a century and is protected as part of Kelowna’s agricultural land reserve, though property developers must be tearing out their hair. He farms it pretty much single-handed, with a passion and an energy that produces 40 different crops in a season, much of which goes to RauDZ and the kitchens of other enlightened chefs in the area.
On the hillside behind the farm is Sperling Vineyards. Anne Sperling is a towering figure in Niagara – one of the great winemakers and a pioneer of biodynamic viticulture. I always knew she grew up on a family vineyard in the Okanagan and learned the roots of what she knows by tending those vines as a child. Now I had a chance to see the property and to meet her neice and her neice’s husband, who run the place and operate the winery shop. We finished our day with a tasting of wines from the vineyard, starting with Sper…itz, an extraordinary bubbly made from old-vine Bacchus and Perle of Csaba (a love-child of Muscat). It was amazingly aromatic and attractive and I wish they made enough to send a few half bottles to Ontario. Then we tried the Sparkling 2008 Methode Champenoise bubbly made from a unique block of Pinot Blanc given three years sur lie. Yeasty, acidic, with a hint of lanolin on the nose, it was delightful but again – they only make 1200 bottles a year. An intense Pinot Gris followed, then the flagship wine from the property, an old-vines Riesling I had tasted a couple of weeks earlier in Toronto, racy, coursing with limestone and petrol, spectacular! In 2008, they planted Pinot Noir on their busy land and we tasted the first ever vintage, the 2011. Precocity isn’t in it. It was shimmering with the promise of the future, all cherries and minerality, a subtle kiss of oak… Another reason to love the Okanagan.
Catherine Frechette had made her point. All this lies within a few minutes of downtown Kelowna, a wonderful circus of quality, history, innovation, commitment and passion. Envious Canadians often ask me why the CCC takes place in Kelowna every year. All the people we met that day provided different but irrefutable answers. If you love wine and food and spirits and beer and vivid gastronomic narratives, this is surely the place to be.