It was a cool, drizzly morning in Whistler — not exactly the best conditions in which to make a trip to the farm. But as the bus full of Cornucopia attendees wound its way up the precarious Highway 99 towards North Arm Farm in Pemberton, the sun broke through the clouds, taking away a bit of the chill, and lifting our spirits.
We were taking part in the coveted “Chef’s Trip to the Farm,” which included a tour of a local farm, followed by a spectacular meal created out of on-hand ingredients from said farm, prepared by the sous chef of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, Ben Pernosky.
The trip is normally held only once throughout Whistler’s epicurean festival, but this year, organizers managed to pull together a second tour, held on Monday morning following Cornucopia, when one would think most people have had their fill of culinary delight.
That clearly wasn’t the case for this group of enthusiastic foodies. About 15 of us arrived at North Arm Farm, which is owned and operated by Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy, all-too ready and willing to tromp about in the mucky fields. And Sturdy was equally happy to oblige, gesturing around his 60-acre property, pointing out the plots containing everything from squash, gourds and pumpkins to blackberries, yellow raspberries, and these weird little things called crosnes. All are grown without herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, or petroleum-based fertilizers, and they are just awaiting their organic certification.
He also managed to infuse the discussion with a personal history of his farming education, garnering a few chuckles and questions from the curious culinary group as he told tales of failed cattle farming, their enormous pigs named Twinkie and Gloria, and the newest addition to the pen, Pemby.
Not all of the talk was light-hearted. Sturdy, as always, laid the facts on the table, explaining that about 60 per cent of crops are sold directly at the farm, 20 to 25 per cent at markets, and 15 per cent to restaurants. It’s pretty clear that farming isn’t an easy business — you’re at the mercy of weather, crop disease, and fluctuating market demand, all of which, when combined, make for a daunting business venture. But standing out in the fields in the fresh fall air, with snow-capped Mount Currie in the distance, it’s easy to see why you would want call this “the office.”
After Sturdy had familiarized the group with some of the basics of local farming, and our feet were starting to get a bit numb, we headed back indoors to the kitchen in the farmhouse, where glasses of Sonora Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were waiting to help warm us up.
Chef Pernosky comfortably chatted with the crowd as he prepared the first dish, a peppered caramel pear stuffed with smoked pork rillette, surrounded by an earthy sunchoke soup and garnished with crisp sunchoke chips.
Next up on the menu was a truly decadent presentation of brown butter fried sable fish (my favourite), served with brandade (mashed salt cod) and cod foie (liver). The richness of the sable fish was a perfect balance for the delicate liver.
Eyes were agape when Pernosky pulled a pumpkin, stuffed with duck confit cassoulet (a rich, slow-cooked bean casserole), from the oven, ladled it onto plates, and carefully shaved pine mushrooms on top.
But my personal favourite dish of the day was the Pemberton beef Bolognese, served with perfectly prepared, fluffy potato gnocchi, and chanterelle mushrooms in a savoury sauce.
Finally, the decadent meal with local and provincial roots (both literal and figurative) wrapped up with a presentation of artisan cheeses, jellies, preserves and Terra breads, and a creative dessert dish of candied beets, carrot muffins, cream cheese ice cream and caramel prepared by pastry chef, Laurant Bernard.
And the Chef’s Trip to the Farm wasn’t the only Cornucopia event that placed an emphasis on local flavour.
The slow food market held at the Westin on Saturday morning was bustling with locals and tourists who were interested in sampling some local fare from the fields of Pemberton, the kitchens of Whistler and beyond.
While there was plenty of in-season produce, like potatoes, root vegetables, cheese, and tea available for purchase, the market was also a great opportunity to indulge your taste buds in a bit of everything. For $1 apiece, you could purchase tickets, which could then be exchanged at various booths for everything from a strawberry dipped in the chocolate fondue fountain, made with Whistler Chocolate, to a sampling of the ales and lagers from the Howe Sound Brewing Company, located in Squamish. Namasthé also had a table set up, so you could grab a cup of Mountain Mint tea to soothe the tummy after tasting at a few too many tables.