Straw poll time: Seven British Columbians are huddled around an indoor picnic table with a cheerful checkered tablecloth (too hot to picnic outside!). Ask what they think is the quintessential B.C. food and you get two quintessential B.C. answers: Tree fruits and salmon.
Given it was the Okanagan, it's no surprise that tree fruits — especially peaches and cherries — outnumbered the salmon votes. But you can't go wrong with either this B.C. Day for a picnic indoors or out.
Since we're salmon-savvy in Sea to Sky Country, let's take a peek at B.C.'s amazing tree fruits along with some of our food history and some great B.C. resources.
First, full disclosure: I'm biased about tree fruits and come by it honestly. Both my grandparents' families on my mom's side were some of the first settlers in the Okanagan, coming in by horse-drawn wagons in the late 1800s.
So many summer holidays for this skinny kid from Edmonton were spent awestruck in orchards. Eating handfuls of cherries — for free?! — from the heavy wooden lugs that picked fruit is stored in. Riding Uncle Hec's tractor through the sun-dappled rows, watching apricots and peaches mellow with their first orange tones. Fruit trees, with their beautiful bark and gnarly arms, looked more like storybook characters than trees.
Once I bawled my nine-year-old eyes out when it was time to drive back to Alberta, home of endless mosquito days and muck-bottomed lakes. I was totally willing to trade in my parents for a life with my fruit-growing relatives.
Besides the joys of being an orchardist, my economic future would have been secure. B.C. is a giant in terms of food production, and Herb Barbolet is the man to tell you about it. Herb's a legend in B.C.'s local food supply and all things sustainable. If you love food and "local" in B.C., you couldn't learn from a better person.
"Food is an intimate commodity. You take it in and it becomes part of you, like air and water, the other two intimate commodities," he said at a lecture on food and culture at Emily Carr University of Art & Design. Food is also political and economic, so it's been key to much of Herb's work.
He's farmed in the Fraser Valley, and co-founded Farm Folk/City Folk to educate people about their food supply and B.C. Association for Regenerative Agriculture to move beyond organic farming. Herb also started Isadora's, a wonderful 1,500-member co-op restaurant that anchored Granville Island for decades. It was the biggest cooperative enterprise of its kind in North America.
At Isadora's, which offered its members shares and free food as dividends, Herb could test products from his farm. (Hello, any Sea to Sky farmers and activists listening?) They were the first to offer mixed greens (35 varieties!), baby veggies and more from the 150-plus ingredients grown at the farm.
Herb has also developed food policies, including Vancouver's, and worked with Imagine B.C., a centre devoted to B.C. culture where you can pitch your innovative idea and receive up to $7,000. He's currently a member of SFU's Centre for Sustainability, and otherwise has been active on so many other food fronts the full list would fill a fish net.
According to Herb, B.C. produces more food than Ontario. This is all the more amazing since we do it on three to four per cent of the land base because of all our mountains. In B.C. we have to squeeze food production "into the flats where everything else is trying to go, too — cities, roads, and more." But despite high productivity, our local processing capacity is virtually gone in southern B.C. where much of our local food is produced.
We used to have our own salmon canning factories in Steveston and, surprisingly, fruit packing houses in the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island and on the Sunshine Coast. But those historic coastal packing and canning houses are gone now as food processing became centralized under big corporations.
As for the history of our B.C. tree fruits, check out David Dendy's book online for the BC Fruit Growers' Association, which represents more than 500 family-operated tree fruit farms producing some 100 million kilograms of apples and 15 million kilograms of cherries a year.
Long before the Okanagan became the hub, fruit trees in B.C. were first planted by Hudson's Bay Company at its various forts. At Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island, they planted apples, pears and peaches in the early 1840s.
Salt Spring Island was also one of the earliest fruit-tree centres. The first apple trees on the mainland were planted in New Westminster in 1859, and a lot of fruit-tree plantings followed the Gold Rush trail into the Cariboo, with places like Lillooet, Lytton and Cache Creek becoming early tree fruit havens in the 1860s. It wasn't until 1873 that Penticton's first cherry tree was planted at the Ellis homestead.
Ironically, early settlers in the Okanagan had nothing to do with trees and fruit, concentrating instead on ranching and grain growing. My granddad was a cowboy in the Okanagan, and although he and his young family eventually moved to Alberta to find work during the Depression, that unique Okanagan landscape still speaks to us big-time.
So this B.C. Day we'll be enjoying some juicy B.C. fruit — Early Red Haven peaches, maybe, or some fragrant Perfection apricots, or a big bowlful of fabulous Lapin cherries — and a salmon steak or two. Hope you will be, too.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who eats more fruit than a fruit bat.