Back to the Land in British Columbia
In southern B.C., there’s a place where experience comes from the ground up.
Osoyoos? Okanagan? Oh, and how do you pronounce that again? If you’re not familiar with this pocket of B.C., about a two-hour drive from Kelowna, you might appreciate a bit of a vetted – okay, curated, let’s say – wine-tasting, foodie-filled, great outdoors experience, all packed into less than a week.
In the case of Osoyoos, in the Okanagan Valley, I discovered a one-stop shop: the Watermark Beach Resort. It’s also built for longer stays – great for snowbirds who may not always want to go south – with light-filled suites that feature apartment-sized square footage, living rooms and kitchens and communal amenities such as a good gym and an even better pool, where you can breathe in the valley air and take in the lakeside views. The resort has smartly partnered with a few of the region’s forward-thinkers – when it comes to wine, food and fun in this, Canada’s only desert.
Forage with a Farmer
I’m a bit of a keener on food provenance: I like to know where it comes from. But actually getting into the field and picking it? Why not?
Lucky for foodies, the brains at Watermark have developed a Canadian signature experience with Covert Farms. Spend an hour with farmer Gene Covert. Pick your own organic produce – we plucked juicy red strawberries right off the vine for our dessert – take a ride on the farm’s 1952 Mercury truck, adding to the nostalgic appeal, through the vineyards and to meet some of the farm’s animal citizens and end up back at the ranch, so to speak, with a wine and nibbles pairing.
That’s just the appetizer, though, as the finale is wine and a farm-fresh menu duo, taken al fresco back at Watermark’s patio. Satisfy my locavorism? Check.
Cook with a Chef
He may been raised an Albertan, but chef Chris Van Hooydonk is fully entrenched in the Okanagan, where he’s lived since he was 16. After culinary school – and stints at the Four Seasons in Boston and restos in Whistler, Kelowna and right here in the south Okanagan – Van Hooydonk opened Backyard Farm Chef’s Table, his own cooking school at his orchard, where he can harvest his fruits and veggies and then bottle them up under his Backyard Farm preserves label.
“It’s an Old-World approach to food – no real recipes, more about the ingredients we use,” he says. “Food to me should be approachable, whether you like cooking or not.” He has 60 fruit trees in the orchard and he’s inspired by the grassroots of the farming history of his property. Fortunately, his wife’s passion is growing and gardening.
“A chef’s passion,” he adds, “is cooking and eating!” During our four-hour culinary experience, Van Hooydonk encourages hands-on participation while fostering interest in the outcome of a cooking class – the meal – but also, the ingredients before the cooking begins.
“Where’s this food coming from? Where are the chickens, the rhubarb, the asparagus from?” It’s all in season, he says, and he can tailor what you want to learn about before you arrive. And nothing’s perfect.
“It’s okay to make mistakes when you cook,” Van Hooydonk advises. “It’s all part of the experience.” And so is the pairing of some stellar Okanagan Valley wines.
And that’s the beauty of the Okanagan Valley region, and Osoyoos in particular. Grapes grow alongside desert-like dunes; low-lying golf course greens huddle between mountain peaks; winemakers and athletic types, chefs and farmers, retirees and up-and-comers, natives and new to the valley. All living in harmony? Check.
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There’s a story about Hester Creek in Oliver, B.C., south Okanagan, locals tell: John Carmichael Haynes was an Irish-born constable and, after his arrival in Canada in 1858, he made his way to the Okanagan Valley. He was a rancher, judge and public servant; his reputation was one of utter disdain for lawlessness – a strong arm of the law. He was a hanging judge, you see. But his daughter, she was a gentle soul. She was named Hester, and she had a great love of water, of fish and of swimming every chance she could get. The creek that rambled through her father’s property still bears her name, christened as such by Haynes when he first purchased the land in this part of B.C. wine country.
Hester Creek (hestercreek.com) is also the name of the winery that occupies much of the estate, its label sports a girl catching the tail of a dolphin – an homage. Another is to her father, the vineyard’s The Judge, a smoky, leathery blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The soil is good for grapes here, made better by Ice Age deposits that are unique to the property. Perhaps the Ice Age couldn’t inch itself any farther: because of the topography, the soil differs just across the road.