Monday, April 16, 2007

Flashback: Okanagan Valley, 2006

When we started our decent along the switchbacks from high in the Cascade Mountains down into the Okanagan Valley, all we knew was that we were headed for a town between two lakes at the heart of British Columbia's wine country, and to the home of our friends who lived in this place called Pentiction. We weren’t expecting to gape in awe at the scenery, as we drove our rented Montana along a breathtaking wine route that wound around the lake, providing beautiful views of vineyards co-existing along the sloping hills and growing nearly right down to the shimmering, clear waters of Okanagan Lake.
In short, we never expected to fall in love with this bewitching place.

Located about five hours east of Vancouver, the Okanagan Valley stretches over 100 kilometers with Okanagan Lake at it's center. This is Canada's warmest region and one of it's premiere wine appellation, thanks to the many unique micro climates and soil types in the various pockets of the valley. One could say that this area is experiencing a boom as in the past five years the number of wineries has doubled in size bringing to total up to 132. We decided that was enough to keep us happy doing wine tours for an entire summer. Unfortunately we had to settle for considerably less than that during our two day stay.

Our cheery, enthusiastic hosts Cameron and Dana were more that happy to give us the tour around the valley where they have settled and set up their business, Joy Road Catering.
Two of the best chefs I know, we've kept in touch over the years since working together a few years ago at Toqué!

After a swim in the lake to cool us down, our friends got on their cell phone and called their contacts to let them know that they were on their way with some food and wine lovers in tow! We were in for a rare treat: a gourmet excursion along the captivating benchland known as Naramata with our own personal guides.

Danny and Noah enjoying the river-fed Okanagan lake with it's mountain views and sandy beaches.

Although wineries are predominant in the valley, plenty of orchards and produce farms take advantage of the rich terrain. The air is heavy with the scent of ripe apricots and roadside stands showcase the best of what the valley has to offer: peaches, pears, plums, apricots, cherries, and apples. This is fresh fruit at its finest, bursting with flavor and warm from the lazy suns rays.

Our van lurched along a winding driveway alongside a cherry grove and we tumbled out at Claybank Lavender Farm. We walked down a sloping hillside overlooking the lake (everything overlooks the lake here!) and into fields and fields of ripe purple lavender. Absolutely magical.

Dana's friend Pati runs this second-generation lavender farm and makes her own one-of-a-kind luxurious products for body and home. She was as pleasant as can be and invited us to pick cherries from her trees, which we were hoping she would, and gave me a bundle of fresh lavender that scented my suitcase all the way home.

Fresh cherries are amazing and all, but we were getting hungry and eager to sample some wine. So while Noah succumbed to the warm sun and dozed in his stroller, we did a wine and cheese tasting at Poplar Grove Winery. This establishment produces four different kinds of absolutely stellar cheese that are sold on site and various local markets. Also, from what I have read, many of BC's fine dining restaurants are featuring Poplar Grove cheese on their menus. Their wines weren't bad either. Miranda picked up a bottle to bring home to her boyfriend, but to be kind, let's just say he was M.I.A. when she returned home to Montreal and she drank it herself.
He didn't deserve it anyway.

View from Poplar Grove Winery

Next up was Elephant Island Orchard Wines, who's driveway carved through dense orchards scattered with Quebecers busy harvesting the fruit. (OK, maybe there weren't all from Quebec, but the word is that the majority of fruit pickers in the summer come from Quebec!) Here we found no elephant and no island, but a tantalizing selection of fruit wines: raspberry, apricot, crabapple, black currant, cherry, pear...Just reading the wine list made my mouth water. We sat in their shady garden and sample five or six. We left with a case.

This sun was sitting low in the hills as we dropped in to visit Heidi Noble at Joie Farm Cooking School and Winery.

View of Joie's outdoor kitchen

Haidi and her partner, Micheal Dinn, seem to lead a pretty idyllic life, at least one that I would covet. Hmm, let me see, own a small winery, a few orchards, a modest cooking school run out of a top of the line outdoor kitchen, and in the winter months, work on a cookbook. It was a pleasure to meet the vibrant Heidi, and we realized we had more than one thing in common: we both held the same position at Toqué, but she was there several years before I. Small world. They showed us around their charming farm and we picked ripe peaches as large as grapefruits from their trees. Look for their cookbook, Menus from an Orchard Table, coming in May. The word is out that both of our friends, Cameron and Dana, are featured in it.

Soon afterward, following a quick stop for coffee's, we said our goodbyes, thanked our splendid hosts and hit the highway toward Vancouver, where we would catch our flight home. The van was oddly quite as we watched the beauty of the Okanagan Valley fade away as the miles passed under our wheels. Soon the fast food joints started popping up on the sides of the road and we began to see all the usual signs of the approaching sprawl of suburbia.
We had experienced a rare side of Canada's natural splendor and it was going to be hard to get back to normal everyday life.
We had had a glimpse of a world where a peach tastes so good, it's the best thing to happen to you all day-and you're having a great day. A place where people care about their environment, get to know their neighbors, take pride in their land, and live life to it's fullest.

The fragrance of lavender perfumed our Montana, reminding us of where we had been.
As if I would ever forget.


Anonymous said...

Sigh...I wish I had gotten to drink it....but I didnt want anything to do with it. What a waste

Anonymous said...

Wow...that brings back memories... That really is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I even got to sleep under the stars


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