Cornucopia Canada

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Celebrating place—one gooseberry and sea urchin at a time.

By Chris Johns

The late afternoon sun rides low against the horizon. It reflects off the glassy water of Okanagan Lake, illuminating the table and guests in a warm, golden light. We’re seated on a deck surrounded by apple orchards, enjoying a preprandial aperitif at Joie, a working farm and cooking school in Naramata, BC, in the idyllic Okanagan Valley.

Our hostess Heidi Noble presents us with a bowl of lively green soup, chilled and refreshing. It’s the essence of peas, enlivened with a slight herbaceousness; its natural sweetness offset by a hint of acidity. Michael Dinn, our genial host, pours a glass of the wine he has made this year, the Joie Noble Blend, an Alsatian-style mix of German wine varietals redolent of cherry blossoms and ripe pears. It could’ve been made exclusively to complement this soup.

But the nuanced brilliance of the meal is about more than skilled cooking and talented winemaking. You can’t explain the flavours, their vibrancy and immediacy, that simply. Everything we’re enjoying is a product of this place. Noble coaxed the peas from the fertile soil in a vegetable garden I can see from my seat. Dinn sourced the wine grapes a short way down the valley, then had them fermented and aged at a winery a few kilometres away.

This meal sums up a lot about where Canadian food is right now: focusing on the finest, definitive local ingredients, plucked at the height of ripeness and prepared with the greatest respect, even reverence.

Culinary adventurers first ignited the movement on Vancouver Island more than a decade ago. And the passion is contagious. Today, this quest for the best extends across the country—from the freshest-imaginable PEI mussels out of a seaside shack to artisan apple icewine at a charming Old World hotel restaurant in Québec City, QC. Culinary risk-takers in Calgary, AB, Fredericton, NB, and Toronto, ON, are unveiling exciting locally-honed creations in carefully choreographed spaces, while a similar pride of place is informing menus across the prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In the Northwest Territories and Yukon Territory, discerning diners are biting into delicate Arctic char and velvety caribou braised in cabernet.

This culinary revolution is especially appealing to me. Growing up in the Northwest Territories in the 1970s was great training to become a restaurant critic. Really. Towns like Norman Wells, Yellowknife and Inuvik were, admittedly, not centres of haute gastronomy. A head of lettuce was a rare and expensive delicacy, milk was often powdered and fine restaurants virtually unknown. Nonetheless, food was central to my family life and I learned to have great respect for straightforward, in-season ingredients.

Consequently, by the time I moved out on my own to Vancouver Island, BC, I was irresistibly drawn to food and the people who made it. Vancouver Island is blessed with the most temperate climate in Canada. It is ideal for raising livestock and growing a variety of produce year-round. Its proximity to the ocean means seafood is always abundant and fresh. And of course, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. Not surprisingly, the place draws talented, ambitious people from across Canada and around the world.

Food-wise, the 90s was an exciting time to live on the island. By combining the best local ingredients harvested in season, prepared in ways drawing on European, North American and Asian techniques, chefs here began developing a cuisine constantly evolving while distinctly its own.

Around this time, I became friends with Mara Jernigan. Originally from the island, Jernigan had trained as a chef in Europe. She’d also lived in Toronto for many years, where she was witness to that city’s transformation from meat ‘n potatoes to foie gras and arugula.

Returning home, she was clearly influenced by the island’s culinary coming of age. Jernigan began honing the knowledge of local suppliers and regional specialties that would ultimately inspire her. She bought a truly decrepit farmhouse in 1997 and christened it Engeler Farm. She immediately set out to plant vines and vegetables, and began raising rare animal breeds, such as Tamworth pigs and San Clemente goats.

I’ve never met a woman with a greater capacity for turning a challenge into strength. When she discovered her attic was home to hundreds of bats, she researched the subject. She concluded that not only were they harmless, they played an important role in keeping the place bug-free. Jernigan hired a leading bat expert to give lectures at the farm while visitors sat on bales of hay in the twilight watching the tiny creatures’ aerobatic displays.

Engeler Farm became a second home of sorts for me. I spent many weekends there picking vegetables and berries. I hiked in the woods hunting mushrooms and cooked vast, elaborate dinners for the crowds who flocked there knowing there would always be great food and warm hospitality. (Jernigan opened Fairburn Farm down the road in 2002, where she runs a picturesque bed-and-breakfast, still adhering to her principles of local, seasonal and ethically produced fare. Her food is even better.)

Still inspiring us all are Sinclair and Frederique Philip, owners of Sooke Harbour House, just outside Victoria in the seaside town of Sooke. Among the earliest proponents of Canada’s best-of-local movement, Sooke Harbour House is constantly in the news and maintains its well-earned reputation as one of the world’s greats. I held the place in such reverence, it took me some time to work up the courage to visit.

I finally did, and I can recall the sensual play of flavours even today: sea urchin—rich, complex, just pulled from the sea, and sweet, precious Dungeness crab, tender local lamb and earthy wild mushrooms—all served with vegetables harvested hours earlier from the sumptuous garden outside and from neighbouring farms. The encore: lavender ice cream and a selection of local cheese.

Beyond the wraparound windows, herons fished in the low tide. The breeze brought in smells of ocean mingled with fresh herbs and a bouquet of scents from edible flowers swaying in the wind. The wine from Venturi-Schulze Vineyards just a ways down the road was sophisticated, delicate. But it was the magic of place that was truly intoxicating.

Vancouver Island, BC eateries surfing the latest edible trends:
Cafe Brio

The chic little café with the phenomenal wine list.

Brasserie “L’école”
A classic bistro in Chinatown where chef-owner Sean Brennan takes regional, seasonal ingredients and adds French country-style flair.

Fairburn Farm
Aculinary retreat and guesthouse with host-chef Mara Jernigan.

Zambri
Remains one of the great little Italian family-style restaurants anywhere.

Bengal Lounge
In The Fairmont Empress Hotel is a classic where a great curry is always on the menu.

Story courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.


For more information on Canadian destinations visit the Canadian Tourism Commission.

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