Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and drink: How green is your valley?

Between Whistler and the Okanagan, paradise found and lost



What do the Okanagan and Whistler have in common, besides great food, great wine, great lifestyles and weirdly anachronistic mascots? (Ullr, the Norse god of snow, and Ogopogo, the O.K.'s lake serpent, could only have sprung from the same mythic stewpot.)

How about a million people, or at least 50 by the reckoning of Paul and Jane Burrows? Many of them - including Paul and Jane, if you count Salmon Arm as part of the Okanagan - were once an integral part of this cockeyed ski town, especially when it was starting up, but have since said bye-bye and hitched their stars or wagons or whatever it is they're riding to the winey, diney, pretty-good-ski-country of the O.K. corral.

It's like someone picks up Whistler and gives it a good shake once in a while and half of what tumbles out ends up in the Okanagan.

It all started with the original Norwegian crazy skier from way back, Dag Aabye. He first broke the mould by moving to Vernon. Then we have Gerry and Judy Fosty, also in Vernon, along with Inge and Jens Nielsen - Inge of the legendary Inge's Gift Shop, the first artsy shop in the village.

Nearby are Molly and Sandy Boyd, parents of super-skier, Rob Boyd, and Ingrid and Joseph Rozsa, mom and dad to another great Canadian ski phenomenon, Edith Rozsa.

Down the road, Kelowna is now home to Dave and Stella Manuel, Dave of former Sea to Sky car sales/cell phone sales. Then we have to account for Doug and Marge Fox in beautiful downtown Summerland and, further south, Murray Coates with his pied-à-terre in Penticton, along with former high school principal, Bob Daly, who can now sleep in in sleepy Okanagan Falls.

Some, like Bernie "Chef Bernard" Casavant, and his wife, Bonnie, now operating the restaurant at Oliver's Burrowing Owl winery, have stuck by the sector by which they made their mark at Whistler. Others, like Ron "the Hoz" Hosner, Hoz's Pub Ron, Creekside Grill Ron of the larger-than-life persona, have kissed all that good-bye and simply settled into the O.K. good life.

Isn't that what you're supposed to do when you trade in a greener than green valley blanketed with forests for one lined with vineyards and orchards?

But just how green the Okanagan actually is, and will remain, remains a topic to digest.

On a quick touristy visit, perceptions are, at least at first glance, that the Okanagan is a sweet, paradisical slice plucked right from the middle of la dolce vita . All that gorgeous wine, all those wonderful restaurants...

Theo's in Penticton puts out some of the best Greek food this side of the Aegean. Iyara does out-of-this-world Thai. Then there's Rod Butters's Fresco in Kelowna and all those sumptuous little winery eateries, like the Casavants' Sonora Room.

On top of all that, observes a Whistler pal, finally the O.K. has all those good local cheeses and local this and local that, when for many years buying local in the Okanagan meant buying at the local Safeway.

Well, yes and no.

First off, arable or should I say irrigable land is so precious in the Okanagan, no one can afford to run sheep, cows or any other livestock there. Nor can they afford to grow field crops like they do around Keremeos.

So other than the tree fruit and a bit of local honey, and the odd bit of lavender - yes, you can eat lavender - and some herbs and hot peppers and the odd veggie or two you might buy from small, and I mean very small local growers, as in someone with a double lot up on the bench in Westbank or Peachland who wants to make an extra buck or two from his carrots or tomatoes this time of year - all that good local cheese and local this and that pretty much comes from the rich farm and ranch land in the Salmon Arm-to-Armstrong area which, despite the fact the latter is part of the Regional District of North Okanagan, is not usually regarded as Okanagan country, given it's an hour's drive from Vernon, which is generally considered as the northern end of the O.K. valley and the great lake it's named for, which stretches an impressive 135 km from top to its southern bottom in Penticton.

I say all this from a peculiarly personal perspective as my mother's family hails from the Okanagan since the beginning not quite of time, but at least of settlement there. Her dad's family came in by covered wagons from Ontario via the States in the 1880s, about 10 years before the first orchards were planted and 40 years before the first grape vines went in. Her mom's family seemingly sprang up like knapweed from the valley floor.

Streets in Kelowna and nearby Rutland are named for the McClure's and McCurdy's, from whose Celtic ancestral loins I eventually emerged.

Over the years, we've come to think of the proliferation of vineyards and the accompanying closure of the few Okanagan market gardens and the axing of acre after acre of apple, pear, cherry and peach trees, their trunks and limbs piled like skeletons in what was once a shady orchard, not so much as a greening or paradisal transformation of the valley as an invasive monoculture, another industrial agri-business gone a little mad.

But what can one reasonably expect when the packing houses offered 2.5 cents a pound this summer for hail-damaged tree fruit, and Washington growers continue to dump their fruit like so much dirty laundry into B.C. markets at prices Okanagan orchardists can't match?

Dirty Laundry, by the way, is the name of one of the newer vineyards, one of about 70 that now dot the valley. They occupy some 5,000 acres and vie for ever-catchier names and ever-scarcer nooks and crannies to grab on to, with viticulturalists annually pumping millions of gallons of water out of Lake Okanagan while pumping on to the vines millions of pounds of fertilizers and sprays - how about 100 kg of 10-20-20 per hectare? - much of which runs off, back into the lake.

The watershed, by the way, is one of the most contaminated in Canada, and local First Nations, even as they develop Nk'mip Cellars into a stellar resort in Osoyoos, are joining others concerned about the impact on the watershed all this grape watering etc. will have.

All juice has its price, you know.

So to all our friends and compadres, the self-proclaimed Whistler alumni, who have moved to the sweet Okanagan, I say good on you and good for you. Enjoy. We can only hope you take some of the truly "green" values you loved about Whistler and transplant them to your new home.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who cried her eyes out as a kid when it was time to leave her Auntie Bea's and Uncle Hec's cherry orchard.