Explore BC: Osoyoos and Similkameen Valley

This is the fourth and final post about our trip to BC back in October. You can read about our Kelowna, Penticton and Oliver highlights as well.

We ended our BC trip in Osoyoos, another town that neither Mack or I had visited before. Although there were some points of interest in Osoyoos, the attractions we were most drawn to were actually beyond its borders.

Watermark Beach Resort

We were told by multiple people that the Watermark Beach Resort was the place to stay in Osoyoos. Because we were hoping for a relaxed vacation with a lot of down time, it made sense to for our longest leg to take place here.

Watermark Osoyoos

Watermark Beach Resort

However, I didn’t realize until we arrived just how small the community is – under 5,000 – so amenities were fewer than expected. That said, while reviews indicated that the Watermark may not be the most serene place during high season, just before Thanksgiving, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. We were upgraded to a two-bedroom, two bathroom suite (the extra bathroom felt like a luxury given Mack and I share one between us at home), and the hot tub and pool area rarely hosted more than a handful of guests at any given time. The weather, unfortunately, prevented us from making use of the beachfront area outside of brisk walks, but it added to the low-key feel of the property. I will say that because we just departed the very personalized service at the bed and breakfast in Penticton, the Watermark felt much more corporate, but I’m not sure how such a large facility would be able to operate otherwise.

Lake Village Bakery

Osoyoos was the home of my favourite bakery of the trip, Lake Village Bakery, which had deliciously flaky sourdough croissants. Located a stone’s throw from Osoyoos Lake, we greedily consumed our treats overlooking the water, trying not to make too much of a mess.

Lake Village Bakery

Sourdough croissants from Lake Village Bakery

NK’MIP Cellars

Although most of the area’s wineries are located north of Osoyoos, NK’MIP Cellars has the distinction of being the first (and only) Aboriginal-owned and operated winery in Canada. With a desire to learn about their history, we signed up for a guided tour. NK’MIP was born from an enterprising chief, who wanted to make the most of the land.

NK'MIP Winery

NK’MIP (pronounced Inkameep) vines

Although the transformation of reserve land started with an RV park, it eventually grew to include the winery, a hotel and conference centre, and a desert museum. We were surprised to learn Osoyoos Indian Band is actually quite small, made up of only 500 members.

NK'MIP Winery

Tasting by the cellar

The winery was perhaps even more visually striking than Covert Farms in Oliver – with the surrounding barren  landscape, it’s a small wonder a viable, agricultural-based business can thrive in the area.

The Grist Mill

Initially, I skipped the section in Jennifer’s book about the Similkameen Valley, because I wasn’t sure we’d have the time for a detour. But after looking at the map and realizing the valley’s proximity to Osoyoos, we hived off a day to take our time in the area.

The Grist Mill

The Grist Mill

The highlight was a visit to The Grist Mill in Keremeos, a museum built around a historic 1877 waterwheel-run flour mill. We spent some time wandering the grounds before spending a full hour with Cuyler Page.

The Grist Mill

Cuyler Page

He was in the process of rebuilding the leavers and pulleys inside the mill, and spoke at length about the history of wheat and milling (including his involvement, humbly stated, in bringing red fife wheat back to prominence in Canada). As Mack commented that day, it’s likely we only scratched the surface of his knowledge.

The Grist Mill

Sifted flour

The Grist Mill also features a cafe with a small menu of soups, sandwiches and baked goods. The food was nothing fancy, but tasted homemade and wholesome. It definitely helped to round out our stop.

Twisted Hills Craft Cider

During our trip, we learned that cider houses are up and coming in the Okanagan, with several having opened up in the last few years. Twisted Hills in Cawston is among them, and we stopped in to have a taste of some of their ciders and sparkling juices.

Twisted Hills

Twisted Hills cider tasting

It’s a small operation that isn’t quite salient yet (the owners planted on family-owned land), but given they were sold out of many of their offerings, it’s a good sign. Though we found the Calville’s Winter a tad on the sweet side, we enjoyed our visit to the farm.

Benja Thai

Apparently Benja Thai is known as "Thai worth the drive" in Keremeos. The fact that a Thai restaurant exists in a town of 1,200 is a feat in itself, but the family who runs it demonstrate their wonderful hospitality during our visit, and we could see how they’ve built up a loyal following. Mack especially enjoyed the green curry, and the pad Thai hit the spot for me.

Benja Thai

Green curry

It was a whirlwind week in BC, but I think we made the most of it, and discovered some hidden gems along the way.

Explore BC: Oliver

This is the third post about our trip to BC back in October. You can read about our Kelowna and Penticton highlights as well.

While we didn’t stay in Oliver (we chose to overnight in Osoyoos instead), we ended up spending some time there at some key attractions.

Festival of the Grape

Our Penticton bed and breakfast hosts convinced us that the Festival of the Grape was worth attending, and since it fit in with our plans to head south, we built it into our itinerary.

Festival of the Grape

Festival of the Grape

Located in Oliver, the "wine capital of Canada", the festival was celebrating their 20th year. 60 wineries from the area were represented, in addition to a number of food vendors. It was an efficient way to sample from new wineries (favourites that day included Pipe Dream gamay and Kismet pinot grigio) in a beautiful setting. I also couldn’t resist the sparkling apple wine from meadery Meadow Vista.

Festival of the Grape

I love wine puns

The grape stomping competition was also a lot of fun, with lively competitors that had travelled from as far as Saskatchewan to compete.

Festival of the Grape

Grape stomping

Hammer’s House of Hog

It’s doubtful we would have ever come across one of Oliver’s few food trucks without Jennifer’s handy guide. We managed to get to Hammer’s House of Hog, parked at Lions Park in Oliver, on his last day of his season.

Hammer's House of Hog

Hammer’s House of Hog

The pulled pork sandwich, customized with one of three house-made barbecue sauces, weighed nearly a pound each, and was tender, tangy and messy. It was everything you would want from a pulled pork sandwich.

Hammer's House of Hog

Pulled pork sandwich

McIntyre Bluff

Looking for a more physical activity, we chose to hike up to McIntyre Bluff, a fairly recognizable South Okanagan landmark and a sacred place for the area’s Indigenous peoples.

Covert Farms

View of McIntyre Bluff from Covert Farm (can you spot the “face” of the rock?)

Being the inexperienced hikers that we are, it took us close to 4 hours to complete the 10km round trip. While the trail itself was clearly marked, distance markers would have been great so we could better pace ourselves.

Hiking to McIntyre Bluff

Increasing elevation

The trail itself traversed some varied terrain, from rock faces painted a dazzling red from the sagebrush to mossy, shaded meadows layered with pine needles to barren, dry desert.

McIntyre Bluff

Loved the colours

The payoff was better than we expected, offering sweeping views of Oliver and the adjacent Okanagan river. We were also able to see Covert Farms, located at the base of the bluff from above (we chose to tour the farm separately the day after).

McIntyre Bluff

We made it!

Covert Farm

We decided not to do a multi-winery tour during our trip, and instead chose a few wineries we would visit and tour in a more in-depth way. One of these was Covert Farm in Oliver. The tour price is on the high side at $49, but we lucked out and ended up with a private tour. Campbell Kearns was our knowledgeable and passionate guide, and ended up spending two hours with us along the way.

Covert Farms

We had fun riding in the beautifully restored truck

Covert combines a number of agri-tourism aspects on their 700 acre property, including tours, children’s programs, on-farm dinners, and a u-pick, and will be looking at collaborating with Indigenous communities to develop a forage/hike up to McIntyre Bluff.

Covert Farms

Squash patch

He introduced us to their Scottish Highland cattle, who are actually protected by a small herd of alpacas (we didn’t know they had been domesticated for this purpose). The manure is helpful for fertilizer, since Covert is a certified organic operation. We also visited the small u-pick area of the property, featuring a small orchard, tomatoes, and strawberry patch. Campbell told us the strawberry variety actually bears fruit twice a year, and they’ve been able to pick strawberries as late as December.

Covert Farms

They had to drag me away from the strawberry patch

We spent the bulk of the tour learning about the organic practices they employ on their 25 acres of vines. To mitigate weeds, they plant competing crops such as vetch, which also have the added benefit of fixing nitrogen in the soil. To dissuade birds from feasting on the fruit, they planted fields of sunflowers (the unintended consequence from this was that it ended up attracting more birds than they’d ever seen before, but it opened up the skies to their predatory friends). Recognizing that they do lease about 300 adjacent acres to Sandhill, which is not certified organic, Campbell was careful to say that Sandhill is expected to be respectful of the land. One of the technologies that Sandhill does employ are propane-powered fans, which automatically kick in when frost is a possibility to sweep the cold draft up and away from the vines. The cost to run a single fan for one evening is $800.

Covert Farms

Covert Wine grapes

During the tour, we also had the chance to sample some of their wines, though many of their varieties had sold out for the year already. They paired the wines with a lovely cheese and charcuterie board.

Covert Farms

Cheese and charcuterie

While we chose not to stay in Oliver, we found there were many reasons to linger!

Explore BC: Penticton

This is the second post about our trip to BC back in October. You can read about our Kelowna highlights as well.

I had never been south of Kelowna before, so Penticton and onward were new experiences for me. Mack had last travelled the area on road trips with his family as a child, so it is safe to say this journey was a different one.

Hardy Falls

On our way south, we stopped at Hardy Falls in Peachland. It was a great way to stretch our legs and watch the Okanagan Kokanee salmon spawn at the same time.

Hardy Falls

Hardy Falls

It was a peaceful walk, lush and shaded, with many points above the creek to see the pink hued fish from above.

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Salmon!

Kettle Valley Steam Railway

If you prefer to ride a train over one of the remaining Kettle Valley Railway trestles instead of walking or cycling over them, consider the Kettle Valley Steam Railway, located in Summerland.

Kettle Valley Steam Railway

Mack wished it read “Hill Valley”

We have to say the experience was a bit underwhelming after visiting the Myra Canyon Trestles, but it was a family friendly activity, with an on-board banjo player and an interpreted tour.

Kettle Valley Steam Railway

Open air cars

Above the Beach Bed and Breakfast

Above the Beach really spoiled us. It’s a bed and breakfast situated on one of the hills overlooking Skaha Lake, run by longtime residents Barb and Gary. We were fortunate enough to be upgraded to one of their Carriage Suites, which have a separate entrance, a large soaker tub, and a great view.

Above the Beach

Carriage suite

Their breakfasts were a wonderful way to start off our day – one morning, we were treated to cream-cheese stuffed French toast, and on another, eggs benedict. Mack was also happy with the unlimited coffee! And though it was slightly chilly,we still took advantage of the chance to eat outside with views of the beach. We wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again in the future.

Above the Beach

Breakfast at Above the Beach

Penticton Farmers’ Market

So many of the producers Jennifer profiles in her book vend at the Penticton Farmers’ Market, so when it lined up that we would be in town on the Saturday, we made sure to head downtown early to explore.

Penticton Farmers' Market

Penticton Farmers’ Market

Mack wonders why I always torture myself with markets when we’re travelling, since we can’t ever buy much, but I love seeing what’s available from local vendors. We picked up some honey from the Similkameen Apiaries, coffee from Backyard Beans, and Joy Road apple cinnamon buns to nibble on.

Penticton Farmers' Market

Gorgeous tomatoes

In addition to the farmers’ market, the Downtown Penticton Association also organizes a separate market that stretches another few blocks that offers other merchandise and services – we wouldn’t have realized they were two separate entities if we hadn’t read about it prior.

The Bookshop

Mack is a huge book junkie, so we knew a visit to The Bookshop was in order. Located on Main Street downtown, we stopped in during our walk through the farmers’ market.

The Book Shop

Just one section of The Bookshop

The floor-to-ceiling shelves in parts were pretty daunting to navigate, but staff were quick to help if needed. Most of the fun was perusing the titles on our own anyway to find gems hidden in the rough.

Buy the Sea

An Edmonton ex-pat owns Buy the Sea, a seafood retail shop with a built-in fish and chip stand (they also have a location in West Kelowna). The fresh seafood case reminded me somewhat of what Ocean Odyssey in Edmonton is hoping to offer: a combination of raw products and those that are marinated and ready to be cooked.

Buy the Sea

Buy the Sea

We stopped in for dinner, and the fish and chips really hit the spot. Freshly fried and nicely breaded, it was our favourite meal in Penticton.

Buy the Sea

Fish and chips from Buy the Sea

Upper Bench Winery and Creamery

Upper Bench Winery and Creamery has the distinction of offering a perfect pairing from in-house products: they not only make their own wine, but cheese as well.

Upper Bench Estate Winery

Upper Bench Winery

We stopped in to try both one afternoon. While the traffic on the adjacent road was more audible than ideal, it was nice to drink in the surrounding vineyard views. We also had fun playing fetch with Emma, one of the property’s animal mascots.

Upper Bench Winery and Creamery

With the sample platter (and Emma eagerly awaiting more fetch friends)

A related note – the best cheese we tried on our trip came from nearby Poplar Grove Cheese. We didn’t end up taking any photos of the small shop, but the Harvest Moon Washed Rind was some of the creamiest cheese we’ve ever had – it’s worth a stop if you’re in the area.

Play Winery and Bistro

Our bed and breakfast hosts recommended Play Winery, one of the newest wineries and full-service restaurants in the area. Built on a hill above Skaha Lake, the view from the patio is lovely. Also, because the tasting room is embedded in the restaurant, it is open much later than most, which is handy to know about in the off-season when most wineries shut down by 6pm.

Play

Seared scallops from Play Winery

The food was good for the most part; the seared scallop appetizer stood out, served with beetroot yogurt, fried beets and microgreens.

Sunset over Skaha Lake

Sunset on Skaha

After two nights in Penticton, we were off to Oliver and beyond.

Back in the 6ix: Escape to Niagara

As much as I love Toronto, I was happy with our decision to escape the bustling city for two days. We rented a car and drove out to Niagara wine country.

Jordan

Jordan, a real life Stars Hollow

I was enticed by the photos and reviews online for the Inn on the Twenty in Jordan, and it was possibly the best decision we made on the trip. The boutique hotel was charming and situated on a street that could have doubled as the set for Stars Hollow. Breakfast was included in the restaurant, and the dinner we enjoyed the night prior was well done. I’d heartily recommend a stay to anyone considering a night in the area.

Toronto Trip

Perfect pickerel and fiddleheads

We also joined a wine tour so neither of us would have to worry about driving. Crush on Niagara Wine Tours offers pick-ups from area hotels, which was perfect for us. It was supposed to be a group tour, but the bonus of travelling in the off-season is that it ended up being a private tour just for the two of us!

We visited 4 larger (160 acres) and smaller (10 acres) wineries, which was a good representation for us. They all offered something interesting – Flat Rock Cellars had the best view, with their tasting room on stilts allowing a glimpse of Lake Ontario and even Downtown Toronto.

Jordan Wine Region

At Flat Rock Cellars

DiProfio was obviously a family-run business, and provided the best hospitality during our tasting, with generous pours.

Jordan Wine Region

DiProfio Winery

GreenLane was the most educational, and my favourite stop, as Jane, our guide, was thorough and able to answer all of our questions about the type of grapes that thrive in cold climate viticulture (explaining why you find so many Ontario Rieslings but never any Malbecs). We had no idea the last two winters had done so much damage to the area’s wineries, some losing as much as 65% of their vines.

Jordan Wine Region

A revelation in discovering the difference made by aged vines

The sommelier at Vineland Estates was clearly experienced and had a fine palate, but both Mack and I were suspicious of the technology they chose to adopt. They’re the first winery in Canada who has invested $250,000 in an optical-based camera that only selects the ripest grapes for inclusion in their wine (everything else is blown off the conveyor belt, and not considered even for compost). It seemed unnecessary and wasteful, but then again, what do we know? At any rate, the tour was a great way to get a feel for some of the area’s wineries without the stress of having to navigate the wine trail on our own.

Jordan Wine Region

Vineland Estates, complete with two helipads

Before heading back to town, we made a pit stop at Dillon’s. The distillery is not only known for their spirits, but also for their bitters (found in Edmonton at The Silk Road and Habitat, among others). We didn’t have enough time for a full tour, but did taste some of the products not available in Alberta. I really enjoyed their Limoncello, sweeter than the traditional liqueur. But we both found their gin 22 (with 22 botanicals without a juniper-forward taste) to be the one we will pick up in the future (thankfully, available in Alberta, including Everything Wine, where we picked it up in Sherwood Park).

Dillon's

The very photogenic Dillon’s tasting bar

We didn’t even make it out to Niagara Falls this time but neither of us regretted that decision – there was just so much else to experience! If you’re able to schedule a day trip out to Jordan or the surrounding communities the next time you’re in Toronto, I’d highly recommend doing so.

Mini-Break in the Mountains: Jasper in January

With the low Canadian dollar and cheap gas prices, I imagine many families are considering staycation options this year. Moreover, although Calgarians often point out Edmonton’s comparable distance to the Rockies as one of our shortcomings, the four hour drove to Jasper really isn’t that much to overcome. It’s definitely close enough for a weekend jaunt, and personally, knowing that a vacation from work is implausible over the next few months, a short getaway is exactly what I’ll need come spring.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

My familiarity with Jasper began only a few years ago as an adult, as Banff was my family’s destination of choice growing up. A weekend at the Jasper Park Lodge’s famed Christmas in November in 2014 opened my eyes to the town as a destination in winter. I continued learning about Jasper’s possibilities a few weeks ago, along with Mack and some other media folks, including Linda, Mike, Gail, Phil and Robyn. Tourism Jasper covered our accommodation, transportation and most of the meals that we enjoyed over the weekend.

Linda

Linda takes an #elkie

Jasper in January has been taking place for twenty seven years, and what started as a celebration of skiing and snowboarding at Marmot Bason has grown into a wide-ranging festival that features other winter sports, arts and food.

Getting There

Did you know that there is a shuttle that runs daily from Edmonton to Jasper? Well, neither did we, until we booked the Sundog Transportation and Tours bus. It departs from West Edmonton Mall at 3:50pm, to arrive in Jasper by 8pm, with brief stops in Hinton and Edson along the way ($89 one-way ticket for adults). The ride was comfortable, and as Mack noted, it was nice not to have to drive, especially after dark.

That said, the only departure time from Jasper back to Edmonton was at 7am – which means it wouldn’t be possible to make the most of a two-night trip to Jasper. We ended up carpooling home with Phil and Robyn to extend our stay into the afternoon.

Also, as we were shuttled around the Jasper area as a group, had we been without a personal vehicle, it would have been difficult to make our way from one destination to another outside of anything within the town site. While taxis were a reliable source of transportation, they may not be the most economical solution for a holiday.

Scenic Pastures

The highlight of our visit was an afternoon at Marmot Meadows, a Parks Canada Winter Hub. Throughout the season, there will be opportunities to learn more about wildlife, Aboriginal culture, and winter activities at a site that encourages interaction with the outdoors. A skating rink was in the process of being formed (which, as a TV junkie, reminded me of the picturesque mountainside rink in the first season of Everwood), and a cross-country ski track was well-worn in the valley.

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Yes, I’m having Everwood flashbacks

Our group participated in a beginner snowshoe activity. Unlike the snowshoes I remembered from my youth – those wooden frames based on more traditional models – Parks Canada staff introduced us to lighter, metal frame versions that were easier to use. We padded into the woods with our guide, relishing the steps into fresh, undisturbed powder.

Mack & Sharon

Snowshoeing

Left to our own devices, Linda and I engaged in some friendly competition, racing short distances in the snowshoes. It was the most fun I had all weekend, and a winter activity I am now inspired to continue in the future.

Linda & Sharon

In it to win it

On Sunday, Phil and Robyn took us to some of their favourite natural wonders. Athabasca Falls is beautiful in the warmer months, but is perhaps even more breathtaking in the winter, with cascades of ice and snow churning below.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

With the hard packed trail, it was obvious that many have come to admire the Falls in the winter. But given the parking lot was uncleared, and the walkways were for the most part snowed over and unsanded, it doesn’t seem to be an officially sanctioned attraction in the winter.

Robyn & Phil

Our tour guides

Pyramid Lake, in the shadow of a peak that shares the same name, is set up as its own outdoor activity hub in the winter, and is only about a ten-minute drive from the town of Jasper. Mountain Park Lodges, which operates Pyramid Lake Resort adjacent to the lake, maintains several rinks and ski trails. They offer rentals for visitors without equipment, but we spotted many families who brought their own equipment for an afternoon of shinny, skating or cross-country skiing. In some ways, given the picture-perfect setting, we were surprised there wasn’t evidence of overt commercial sponsorships from national brewing or coffee brands.

Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake in winter

We had some fun throwing around curling logs, and warmed up in the lodge with some brunch. Afterwards, we took part in a genuine horse-drawn sleigh ride (no wheeled wagons here). At $25 per person, it could be a steep price to pay for families, but for us, it was a manageable cost that weekend. The rides are especially popular around the holidays, but continue to be offered on weekends until the end of March, conditions permitting.

Sharon

Curling logs!

With the jangle of sleigh bells and the breathtaking mountain in front of us, it felt like a postcard experience. The sleigh even had fuzzy warm blankets for the ride, appreciated on that blustery afternoon.

Jasper in January

Horse-drawn sleigh at Pyramid Lake

Good Eats

Jasper in January had three themed weekends: arts, appetites, and adventures, though some activities spnned multiple weeks. Our trip centred around appetites, and I’m happy to say, we discovered some culinary gems.

The Wicked Cup is a great place to start your day. It’s a charming establishment with a restaurant, cafe and gift shop, and based on their brunch offerings, I wouldn’t hesitate to return for other meals. The pancakes ($10.50) I ordered were not for the faint of heart, served with a wild berry compote and whipped cream. They were fluffy and delicious, and yes, felt a bit like having dessert to start off the day.

Wicked Cup

Classic pancakes from The Wicked Cup

Jasper Brewing Company is a brew pub located within the town site. They have locations in Banff, Calgary and Fort McMurray, which all have individual identities and offer different signature brews. John Palko, the brewmaster in Jasper, was noncommittal about a future location in Edmonton, but didn’t rule it out.

Jasper Brewing Co

John Palko of the Jasper Brewing Company

Their model is to sell their beer from the brew pub itself, with the exception of festivals or fundraisers they participate in. Jasper Brewing Company prides itself on serving fresh beer – from mash to pint in 10 days – and produced 115,000L in 2015. Their most popular beer is their Jasper the Bear honey ale.

Mack tried a flight of their beers, which is a great way to sample the six they had on tap. His favourite ended up being the Liftline Cream Ale.

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A flight of beers from Jasper Brewing Company

We also learned a bit about backcountry cooking at a session led by Wild Current. For winter camping excursions, because of the cold, it’s even more important that people stay hydrated and consume nutrient-rich foods. We sampled some rehydrated pastas and chilis (made by adding hot water directly to the package), as well as a stew put together by Wild Current staff.

Jasper in January

Serving up stew

It was somewhat curious that instead of assembling the stew as a demonstration, we were told it had been put together off-site and just reheated on the campfire. Hopefully Parks Canada reworks the session in the future to make it more hands-on and interactive.

For dinner, we were ushered to the majestic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. We enjoyed a three-course meal consisting of highlights from Orso Trattoria’s regular menu, and for me, dessert took the cake. The Tarte de Nero, paired with a ten year Tawny Port, was a rich and satisfying way to end a wonderful evening. As has been my experience at the JPL, the service was once again top-notch.

Jasper in January

Tarte de Nero from Jasper Park Lodge

Wines in Winter is an annual wine tasting event hosted by Mountain Park Lodges. The $30 ticket was perhaps the best value item all weekend – besides the appetizers that were included within the price, attendees were able to sample over 100 different types of wine.

I would have personally liked to have seen more Canadian wines represented, but we did find our way to the Ontario and BC labels being poured. Mack couldn’t help but be drawn to the Great One.

Wayne & Mack

Enjoying the Wayne Gretzky Series Cabernet Merlot

Our last meal before departing for the weekend was both scenic and delicious (typically, it’s only one for two). The Pines Restaurant inside the Pyramid Lake Resort has a lakefront view, and is beautifully designed to take advantage of the panoramic sights.

Pyramid Lake

The Pines Restaurant

Mack and I both couldn’t resist the decadent croissantwich ($12), layered with a fried egg, avocado, tomatoes, chorizo, and cheddar. The only downside was perhaps not having the foresight to order two sandwiches each.

Pyramid Lake

Croissantwich from The Pines

If you’re planning to attend Jasper in January next year, take a look at Jasper in January for what to expect, or more broadly, at any time of year, on Tourism Jasper for ideas – I’m already looking forward to our next mini-break in the mountains.

Thanks again to Tourism Jasper for the opportunity to further explore Jasper!

Check out Mack’s post about our weekend here.

Recap: Northern Lands’ Meet Your Maker Event

Edmonton might seem like an odd choice to hold a national wine festival, given we can’t produce grape vintages in Alberta, but apparently our neutrality in part helped sell the idea of Northern Lands to wineries from across the country. Billing itself as the “largest gathering of Canadian wineries from coast to coast”, the two day festival featured twenty producer dinners at restaurants across the city, wine seminars, and cumulated in a stand up wine and food event at the Shaw Conference Centre on March 28, 2015 called Meet Your Makers.

Northern Lands

Meet Your Makers swag

Festival Director Gurvinder Bhatia is no stranger to organizing large-scale food events. In 2012 and 2014, Gurvinder’s brainchild Hot Chefs, Cool bEATS successfully brought together some of Edmonton’s best chefs for an evening of food and drink with a backdrop of eclectic entertainment. With Meet Your Makers, we could definitely see the resemblance to Hot Chefs (including some familiar faces), but the spotlight on wine was a definite departure.

The event was sold out, so we tried to arrive early to avoid the crowd. Maximizing the space, the lobby of Hall D had been set up to feature breweries, with a few food stations sprinkled between.

Northern Lands

Welcome beer

It was great to see so many of the city’s prominent culinary professionals under the same roof. In spite of the fact that it was a Saturday night, chefs were front and centre, serving up their creations to the 800-solid crowd. The organizers also enhanced the bill with appearances from several key names from “abroad” – namely, Vikram Vij and Charcut’s John Jackson and Connie DeSousa.

Northern Lands

Daniel Costa focuses on preparing his agnolotti

Tickets to the event were $85, and by the end of the evening, we knew we had reaped their value and then some. Although portion sizes were reasonable, with twenty restaurants, the food definitely added up.

Northern Lands

Yes, that is truffle being shaved onto a forest floor-inspired dessert from Duchess

Among our favourites that night were the Tangle Ridge Ranch lamb and olive arancini from Century Hospitality Group and the Rajasthani-style goat meat stew from Vij’s.

Northern Lands

Mack also couldn’t resist the butter chicken potli from Guru

Though we did have our share of wine that night, with 47 wineries pouring over 150 different wines, we were a bit over our head. We did gravitate towards the names we were familiar with (such as Joie, Cave Spring and Mission Hill), but it was also a pleasant surprise to learn about some new producers. For example, Mack and I didn’t know that Kamloops is now home to three wineries (we had spent some time there for a conference a number of years ago).

Northern Lands

Harper’s Trail, one of our Kamloops discoveries

While we also did our best to pair wine with the food we were sampling, it wasn’t as seamless as it could have been. Often, Mack and I ended up splitting up – he’d grab a wine to try while I waited in line for the dishes. Still, we did encounter a few wineries that asked what we’d be eating next before pouring a selection.

Northern Lands

Mack with Eau Claire Distillery, an Alberta-based distillery

There was also a bit of off-kilter fun in the hall – a seemingly random ping pong tournament pitting producers against one another. At the very least, when else can I say I watched Vikram Vij flex his ping pong skills (barefoot, naturally)?

Northern Lands

Vikram Vij shows his stuff

One of our favourite aspects of the event actually had nothing to do with the consumables. It was great to catch up with some people we hadn’t seen in a while – in many ways, the conversations forced us to pace ourselves throughout the evening so the walk home wasn’t as unpleasant as it could have been.

Northern Lands

With Elm Café’s Allan Suddaby

Meet Your Makers promises to return in 2016, and given its success, I’m sure it will be even bigger. It’ll be interesting to see if organizers will choose to showcase fruit wines in the future, given besides beer and spirits, they are Alberta’s contribution to this beverage market.

Congratulations to Gurvinder and his team on a great first event!

Date Night: Pasta Pantry and Jacek Chocolate Couture Tasting

The weekend prior to Valentine’s Day, Mack and I headed to Sherwood Park for dinner and a paired wine and chocolate tasting. The latter was the primary reason that drew us to the suburb, but we decided to take advantage of that excuse and have dinner nearby as well.

I had heard of Pasta Pantry through work colleagues, and a quick gander on their website gave me the impression that dinner would be an inexpensive affair (a small pasta was advertised at $7.95). Given the $65 tickets to the tasting were on the high end of the spectrum, we thought this dinner would help balance things out.

We arrived at a non-descript strip mall just after 5pm, and were surprised to find an absolutely frenzied restaurant. I would not have guessed that a cafeteria-style cantina would be the most hopping place in Sherwood Park on a Saturday night, but I was wrong. We queued up, doing our best to scan the whiteboard menu quickly, and eyed our options on the other side of the glass. I probably should have taken more time to consider the possibilities, but I didn’t want to hold up the growing line behind me, and hastily chose a small pasta topped with alfredo sauce and one meatball. Mack ordered a large pasta with the four cheese sauce and two meatballs. Our total bill was just under $25.

Pasta Pantry

Pasta Pantry

As we had dinner, we couldn’t believe the number of people streaming in – the line was consistently out the door for the duration of our meal. Most were take-out customers, but given the very basic sauce over pasta in front of us, we had to wonder if there was something we were missing. Mack’s four cheese sauce was the better of the two, and sure, the meatballs were tasty, but we were hard pressed to say the fare at Pasta Pantry was much better than dishes found at an Italian food court kiosk (we heard later that their pasticcio is their specialty, but they were out when it was our turn to order).

Pasta Pantry

Pasta with alfredo sauce

Pasta Pantry

Pasta with four cheese sauce

Service was speedy, and the owner made the rounds to check in with diners. We appreciated that personal touch, but what stood out most from our dinner was actually the live music. A young duo, led by Jordan Kaminski, played an assortment of pop covers and originals during our visit, and really helped elevate an otherwise bland experience. Given most of the customers didn’t stay, I would imagine the entertainment wasn’t the primary draw for the restaurant, but it should have been. Though we likely won’t be returning to Pasta Pantry anytime soon, we will be keeping an eye out for the talented young singers!

Following dinner, we headed over to Baseline Wines. About a year ago, the store moved from Baseline to a brand new space on Athabascan Avenue, and before the tasting, we wandered the store to peruse their displays and inventory.

Jacek Chocolate Couture & Baseline Wines Tasting

Baseline Wines

We also couldn’t help but admire the glassed-in tasting room, minimally decorated but stunning. Mack and I had to restrain ourselves from indulging right then and there!

Jacek Chocolate Couture & Baseline Wines Tasting

Beautifully set table

After all the guests had arrived. we took our seats. Ryan, Manager of Baseline Wines and Jacqueline, the Jacek Chocolate Couture Cocoanista herself, would be leading the tasting. As the evening went on, we found out how fortunate we were to have a wine and a chocolate expert at our disposal, as each of them shed insight on how each pairing worked. Ryan explained that chocolate was inherently difficult to pair with wine (contrary to popular belief) because the amount of tannins in the cocoa most often react negatively with wine. As a result, Ryan shared that he tried to either complement or contrast with the flavours in each piece of chocolate.

Jacek Chocolate Couture & Baseline Wines Tasting

Jaqueline Jacek

We were served a total of seven wines (one reception wine, and six to be paired with the six chocolate pieces in front of us). Ryan and Jacqueline guided us through each pairing, providing background on the chocolate and wine, and then encouraged us to sample each individually, then together.

Jacek Chocolate Couture & Baseline Wines Tasting

The spread

Though this wasn’t my first time sampling Jacek chocolates, it was the first time I’ve been able to listen to Jacqueline speak about her creative and production process in a detailed way. Her attention to detail absolutely blew me away, and was something I wouldn’t have appreciated without such a measured opportunity to learn about her chocolates. Her current Spring 2013 collection is all about nostalgia, so it is no surprise to find childhood throwbacks like old fashioned root beer celebrated. But what I didn’t expect was for Jaqueline to tell us that instead of reducing down store-bought root beer, she sourced the needed roots like sassafras from Chinatown herbal stores for the syrup. And to simulate the froth of a root beer float, she sprinkled each truffle with citric acid for a pop on the tongue – genius.

Jacek Chocolate Couture and Baseline Wines Tasting

Mack takes a whiff of the root beer syrup ingredients

My favourite truffle that we sampled that night was the Shirley Temple. I loved the bright and creamy citrus flavour, but even better was the way the grenadine drop bled into the ganache. For Jacqueline, this was a representation of the coloured layers blending together when one stirs up a Shirley Temple.

Our favourite pairing was a Quinta de La Rosa Port with a single-origin Mokaya Mexican chocolate (unfortunately, not available for sale). I’m not a fan of port, but I found the dark chocolate complemented the smooth port perfectly.

Baseline Wines and Jacek Chocolate Couture partner for these tastings on the release of every new collection (this was their third pairing event). Based on our experience, we thought the tickets were well worth the price (we even got to take home a box of chocolate each!), and was a wonderful way to learn about chocolate and wine. Sign up for Jacek’s mailing list to keep informed, and make sure to reserve your tickets early!

Pasta Pantry
305, 101 Granada Boulevard, Sherwood Park
(780) 467-3777

Baseline Wines
11 Athabascan Avenue, Unit 172, Sherwood Park
(780) 449-4448

Jacek Chocolate Couture
406 Kaska Road, Sherwood Park
(780) 464-5200

2012 Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

The newest food and wine festival on the scene is the Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival, held this past Saturday for the very first time. Given the rising number of these types of events, it was very important that the Sturgeon Valley edition differentiate itself somehow. At first glance, it definitely edges out the others in terms of venue. The Enjoy Centre, with its glass ceiling and gorgeous sconces, outdoes both the Shaw and Expo Centre.

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Mack and I were invited to attend for free, and were also lucky enough to receive $20 in sampling tickets. That said, I am not sold on this model (which is the same as the Rocky Mountain Wine & Food Festival), which charges admission cost and additional dollars for sampling tickets. As a patron, I’d much rather pay a steeper ticket price for an all-inclusive event.

For our admission period of 4-6:30pm, we found the crowds a bit sparse, but this was to our advantage – no lines, ample seating, and we felt we had more time and space to converse with the reps. I know at the Rocky Mountain Festival in the past, I have felt a bit claustrophobic at times, and somewhat rushed at certain tables with others jockeying in for samples.

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Enjoy Centre (can you spot Phil and Robyn?)

There were about two dozen liquor and food vendors, but only three tables sampling wine. This was likely due to the fact that the festival ran over the same weekend as Co-Op’s Grape Escape, which featured sixty wine and spirits producers.

Because wine was not as prominent, it definitely drew our attention to the range of beers and spirits highlighted. Notably, this was our first encounter with Ribstone Creek Brewery, which, although no longer Alberta’s newest beer (that distinction probably belongs to Hog’s Head now), we were happy to learn about. It seems the founder wanted to build some sort of business in his hometown of Edgerton, Alberta, and settled on a brewery. It has already won some awards (silver for best domestic lager at the Calgary Beer Fest), and based on our taste, did find it to be quite a light beer (even for me, as a non-beer drinker).

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Ribstone Creek Brewery

We were also introduced to Solstice Botanical Vodka, a new vodka distilled by Yukon Brewery, which makes it the first craft brewery in Canada which is now also a craft distiller. The company wanted to make a unique spirit that combined herbs and berries available in the area, and with the guise of a local herbologist, steeped raspberries, rosehip and sage with the vodka to create the final product. It was noticeably smoother than more mainstream vodkas, though still probably a bit too harsh for me to sip straight up.

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Solstice Botanical Vodka

The first of the two wine vendors we patronized featured BC wine blends from Backyard Vineyard under the name Nosey Neighbour. Both the red and white we tried were pretty easy drinking wines.

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Nosey Neighbour

On the other side of the spectrum was Chinese Happy Wine. A blend of white wine and Osmanthus flower, the vendor described it as a dessert wine. While it was sweet, the lingering aftertaste was not a memorable one (I also had to wonder at the price point – I’ve never seen a dessert wine priced at $8.70 a bottle).

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Chinese Happy Wine

Of course, we were also able to try some of the food offerings. Most of the restaurants represented are located in St. Albert, great for us given we don’t often frequent eateries in that area. First up was a teaser of mac and cheese and baked beans from La Crema Cafe and Smokehouse. Mack commented on the Velveeta-like consistency of the sauce, but we both really enjoyed the smoky-sweet beans with bits of bacon stirred in.

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine FestivalSturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Mac and beans from La Crema Cafe and Smokehouse

Darcy’s Meat Market enticed us with their display, and we chose to try their applewood smoked pulled pork slider and handmade beef jerky. Neither was the most elegant to consume at an event like this, though we did our best. The slider could have used more sauce to bind and flavour the meat, while I prefer my jerky a little more dehydrated.

Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival

Honey garlic jerky and pulled pork slider from Darcy’s Meat Market

The star of the food samples was from The River House (though I don’t have a usable photo, unfortunately). Their braised short rib was hot, tender and delicious.

As a whole, we had a great experience. The Sturgeon Valley Food & Wine Festival has ample room to expand, both in the areas of food and drink. That said, hopefully they can manage their growth and maintain their great hospitality and the intimate nature of the event. Thanks again to the organizers for the invitation!

An Innovative Food and Drink Event: Hot Chefs, Cool bEATS

Hot ChefsThere’s no doubt that the appetite for food and wine events in Edmonton has been growing. In many ways, this is great for consumers who have much more to choose from, though with every passing year, distinguishing one from another has become more challenging. Every so often, however, a unique concept is introduced, and a second look is required. I think the Shaw Conference Centre’s upcoming fundraiser, Hot Chefs, Cool bEATS, is one such event.

What: Hot Chefs, Cool bEATS
When: Saturday, April 21, 2012
Time: 6:30-10pm
Where: Shaw Conference Centre
Cost: $150 (all inclusive)

Mack and I had the opportunity to sit down with Vinomania’s Gurvinder Bhatia recently to talk about the event. He and Shaw Executive Chef Simon Smotkowicz are co-chairing Hot Chefs, where funds raised will support Culinary Team Canada’s quest for gold at the Culinary Olympics in Germany this fall, as well as their High School Culinary Challenge program that supports young talent with apprenticeship opportunities and scholarships for formal training. Their driving vision behind creating Hot Chefs was actually wanting to break the mould of a typical wine-and-dinner event – how far outside of the box could they go?

As it turns out, by leaps and bounds. To start, instead of a traditional cocktail reception, guests will encounter a street festival in the foyer of Hall D. All of the food was inspired by dishes that could be found in street hawker stalls from around the world: The menu includes (all food and drink samples are included in the ticket price):

  • pork belly on rice from Filistix
  • jerk chicken with pineapple and lime slaw from Drift
  • barbeque duck on arepa with fermented slaw from Transcend
  • laksa noodles with tofu from Wild Tangerine
  • beef tartar from Bistecca
  • brisket sliders and duck fat poutine from Culinary Team Canada
  • tequila, Mexican beer, wine, St. Germain cocktails

The main event will move inside Hall D, which will be transformed into a culinary tourist’s dream. Gurvinder described a space where guests will not only be able to sample different types of cuisine and liquors, but will be immersed in the sights, sounds and experiences those regions have to offer:

  • In “Little India”, Guru will be offering Kathi rolls alongside Indian beer, and Mendhi artists will be on hand for henna art
  • In the “Brasserie”, Culinary Team Canada will cook up mussels and fries, croque monsieurs, and offer a selection of cheese to accompany French wines and Alley Kat beers, with French Canadian band Allez Ouest setting the tone
  • In “Granville Island”, Culinary Team Canada will be serving oysters two ways (on the half shell and as fried oyster sliders), salmon tacos and fish and chips to be paired with Granville Island beers
  • In “Little Japan”, guests will be able to try sake and roll their own sushi with Culinary Team Canada chefs, with Japanese drummers Kita-no-taiko providing entertainment

Elm Cafe, Duchess and Transcend will also be on hand sampling appetizers, macarons and coffee, respectively, and guests can also look forward to an Iron Chef-style competition featuring Culinary Team Canada chefs.

The only sit-down portion of the evening comes at the end, with a plated dessert prepared by Culinary Team Canada’s pastry chef.

In many ways, its disappointing that the vision of Hot Chefs isn’t better articulated on either the poster or the webpage. Given the number of local restaurants involved, and the street festival and culinary tour concept, I think this event is one that food lovers cannot miss – Mack and I picked up our tickets this weekend. Hope to see you there!

Find out more about Hot Chefs, Cool bEATS on their website and on Facebook.

Mercury Opera’s 104 Underground (an operascape)

Last Friday, Mercury Opera brought opera to the people – is there any place more democratic than a public transportation platform?

Although the show itself was free (transit operators weren’t checking for fare payments), a $25 ticket gave opera revellers access to some pre-show food and drink at four street-level businesses. I really loved the design of the entire event – from its transformation of an everyday space to a glorious stage, and its recognition and utilization of existing shops.

Given the event started at 6pm on a Friday night, we thought patrons would trickle in, and adoption of an early bird mentality wouldn’t be necessary. We were wrong; by the time we stopped into some of the participating retailers at 7pm, the trays were empty and the pitchers dry.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

The crowd at Coup

In hindsight, the expectation of any event starting at 6pm with the promise of alcohol would be accompanying food of some substance (especially with the $25 admission price). Instead, there were platters of cheese and pretzels at deVine’s, and olives and pickles at Coup. We heard 29 Armstrong had been serving croquettes (long gone by the time we arrived), and the Eyecare Group had offered up desserts (also since devoured), but in the end just wondered whether the organizers simply didn’t anticipate the crowds that turned up.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

Food at deVine’s

Thankfully for Mack and I, we had both eaten, but happily had some wine at deVine’s, and champagne at the Eyecare Group. People were clearly enjoying themselves, and we almost regretted not arriving at the party earlier.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

Ed serving wine at deVine’s

At 8pm, the group was encouraged to head down to the LRT platform to ready for the show. Chairs for the Vif Quartet had been set up at the centre of the platform, and while the crowd eagerly waited for the arrival of the performers (by train, of course), volunteers and peace officers held caution tape in place to make sure all observers remained safe.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

A packed platform

The show, in a word, was spectacular. The singers used the circular benches as their stage, and in their gorgeous Natasha Lazarovic gowns (it was as much a fashion show as an opera performance), colours reflecting on the mirrored panels surrounding them, it was a sight to see.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

Arriving by train

Mercury Opera

Stunning

The acoustics were better than expected, and the live musicians that accompanied them elevated the show even more. When trains full of passengers drove past, their aghast and puzzled expressions were priceless – these kinds of things don’t happen in Edmonton, do they?

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

Encore

When the operascape was over, the performers left as they came – on the train. The void they left was palpable – we didn’t know what to do with ourselves! There should have been an after party to capture the buzz and energy in the air.

Congratulations to Mercury Opera for a fabulous event. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next!

You can read Mack’s post on the event here (including videos of the performance), and take a look at his photo set here.