Canada: Impeccable tastes

By Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis sinks his teeth into the delights of the Okanagan region of British Columbia.

World-class food and wine with a view. Photo / Tourism British Columbia
World-class food and wine with a view. Photo / Tourism British Columbia

Our appetiser at the spectacular Mission Hill vineyard arrived. It was a bowl of tomatoes. No sauces. No condiments. No clever chef's creations. Just tomatoes.

Our paddles made the only noise on Lake McGillivray. It was like being in a cathedral. There was a hush; the silence of the ages. We were paddling in what the world must have been like before motorways and sewage ponds. Sometimes we stopped paddling just to listen to the silence.

If you're wondering what those two paragraphs have in common, the answer is nothing - and everything.

The Okanagan region, where you can find Mission Hill and Lake Mcgillivray many kilometres and poles apart, is a triumph of balance - between development of a gorgeous region of over 1000 lakes, mountains and a natural fruit bowl; and the local flora, fauna and philosophy of not soiling your own nest.

Let's take you back now to Mission Hill - oh, yes please. If a chef in a New Zealand restaurant served up a naked bowl of tomatoes, he would be frog-marched to the door and sent on his way, with some well-chosen words about bus driver school.

But these are not just tomatoes. They are honey, nectar, candy. They have all the wonder of God's creation in their little orange-red bodies. To serve them with anything else would be a sin.

Later, we discover the tomatoes are in such demand the grower has worked out an ingenious scheme. If you want them, you have to work for them. So chefs from the Okanagan have to go to the farm and work - harvesting tomatoes - before the grower will consent to gracing them with his produce.

All around the Okanagan, the freshness of the produce is remarkable. New Zealand is this little food basket at the end of the world with a world-class foodie scene, but the Okanagan makes you wonder if our produce is as, well, fresh ...

Everyone in the Okanagan - whether orchardists, vintners, chefs, or Joe Punter - talks about "organic". It seems to be a byword here; practised, not just preached. It is certificated and jealously guarded; not a label hung round a chicken's neck after it has been lifted out of the battery pen and waved in some sunlight out the front door.

Back at Mission Hill, we are working our way through a class lunch. After the (literally) gobsmacking tomatoes comes a trout gravlax. I don't even like trout, but this is a beautiful thing, served with a frozen mustard mousse and pickled cucumbers.

An enormous tureen of mussels arrives. New Zealand green shell mussels are great things, but these melt in the mouth like butter. My partner Jennie has a smoked sablefish dish with a hazelnut glaze.

Then there's the wines. A fine pinot grigio. A smart rosé. An excellent merlot, a Bordeaux-style oculus and other blends such as compendium and quatrain. Our senses are reeling; our native arrogance that the rest of the world can't compare is shaken and stirred.

We haven't mentioned the best bit - the view. Mission Hill's Terrace restaurant overlooks Lake Okanagan. The panorama sucks your breath out through your teeth. If there's a better view from a vineyard anywhere, I have yet to see it.

Down the hill we visit Quail's Gate, another fine vineyard that is so in keeping a family of quail run in front of the car. They, too, have a restaurant and a fine view of Lake Okanagan.

Then there is Gray Monk, another vineyard and restaurant, this time with an Austrian touch, run by the affable and interesting Willi Franz, a fine chef. It, too, has superb views of the lake.

It is possible, by this time, to be a little blase about views which would normally do your head in. We struggle to find comparative sights in New Zealand.

Queenstown and Wanaka are the best we can come up with - beautiful in their own right, although the Okanagan might win when it comes to the successful resolution of so much settlement around the lakes (population close to 400,000, compared to 24,000 for Queenstown; with both areas swelling seasonally) without detracting from the natural beauty.

Later, we motor up the mountains again to get to Sun Peaks, a winter destination trying to attract more people in summer. We stay in the very ski lodge-like accommodation of Nancy Greene's Cahilty Lodge.

Greene was a Canadian Olympic gold-medal skier and her lodge is a local jewel. It has amusing notices berating skiers, with warning notices of the perils of (and bills that spring from) taking their skis into their rooms.

It is a ski-in, ski-out venue in winter; skiers are able virtually to clamber out their window and ski off into the day. It is clearly a beautiful winter resort, and pretty attractive in summer, too. It can even be seen from horseback as you traverse three mountains (Tod, Morrissey and Sundance). The golf course is the highest in Canada; good-looking and challenging.

But, in summer, it's the serene quality of a place like Lake McGillivray that really fills the senses. It's only a few kilometres from the bustling village of Sun Peaks.

There is one group of canoeists on the shore when we arrive. They have lit a fire so one who fell out of the canoe can dry himself.

They are gone when we get back, our heads full of the beauty of the lake and the exhilarating contrast of being so close to settlement, yet so close to nature.

All through this trip, we remark on how the Canadians - friendly, approachable people - have an affinity with Kiwis. We both have big, brash brothers close by and seem to share the qualities of openness, delight in the outdoors and the ongoing struggle to maintain culture and identity.

Which leads to the other great similarity with New Zealand - found when you visit the uplifting Nk'mip (pronounced in-ka-meep) resort and its desert cultural centre.

The Nk'mip is where the Osoyoos Indian tribe has confirmed its own future around Lake Osoyoos, which touches tips with Lake Okanagan, near the border with the US. It is the southernmost part of the Okanagan (Nk'mip means "bottomland"), about four hours' drive from Vancouver.

The parallels here are strikingly obvious to any New Zealander. Canada has what they politically correctly call "First Nation" people; New Zealand, the Maori.

The story of Nk'mip is instructional for anyone interested in the self-determination of those who were there first. While Maori are still finding their way - and while debate still rages over issues like the foreshore - Nk'mip shows what can be done.

The reservation which houses the Osoyoos and Nk'mip has been around since the 1860s - so they have a wee head-start on New Zealand. But the tribe has developed itself into a business that turns over US$50 million ($65 million) a year.

Nk'mip boasts a huge 4-star resort, an excellent golf course, the Nk'mip Cellars Winery (good food and more award-winning wine; we Kiwis may to have to adjust our ideas a little about where we come in the New World wine category).

Talk about playing the white man at his own game. It is clear from a tour of Nk'mip that the Osoyoos still resent being restricted to their reservation and consider their land to range much further than the dots on the map which represent the reservation boundaries.

It's a simple philosophy for First Nation people: do not expect those who caused the problem to help you. Instead, build your own economy, working with those people, so you can buy back your lands.

The jewel in the crown is the Nk'mip cultural centre - the only desert in Canada, complete with rattlesnakes and unique flora and fauna. It is part of the tribe's thousands-of-years' history and cultural identity, and is jealously guarded. All it would take is for a few morons on motorbikes to chop up the fragile crust of this desert area and the land there would descend to sand; ending forever a unique ecosystem.

You walk away from Nk'mip uplifted and inspired. It may not be a perfect solution - even with US$50 million a year coming in, the First Nation people are still struggling to maintain their language and customs. But it shows that settlements such as the Treaty of Waitangi can be administered with dignity, determination and a great deal of success.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: You can get to this delight for the eyes and the stomach by flying with Air New Zealand to Vancouver and driving the few hours it takes to enter the region. Call 0800 737 000 for details.

Alternatively, you could take a quick flight to Kelowna and drive your car from there. Air New Zealand operates three services a week direct to Vancouver.

Paul Lewis travelled to Canada courtesy of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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