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Pemberton Winterfest dinner both charmed and surprised



“Pemberton has a winery?”

That was most people’s response when I said I was attending a Pemberton Winterfest gala dinner at the Pemberton Valley Vineyard and Inn.

Yes, Pemberton has a gorgeous wine estate, tucked away in the valley farmland down a tree-lined road sparkling with lights — and I drank from the fruits of their labour turning myth into a reality sweeter than the vineyard’s late harvest Pinot Gris.

Like the dessert wine, bottled especially for the dinner, an evening with the potato dwellers north of Whistler was a special, one-of-a-kind escape.

The Rotary Club of Pemberton Centennial, with organizer Lisa Aimes at the helm, hosted the six-course dinner, A Celebration of the Culinary Arts, as part of the Pemberton Winterfest celebrations last weekend, the first of what one hopes will be many more to come.

It was a small kitchen with big chefs orchestrating the evening. Vineyard executive chef Ryan Leitch welcomed some of Whistler’s top culinary masters including James Walt, executive chef of Araxi and formerly to the Canadian Embassy in Rome; RD Stewart, executive chef at La Rúa and Pique Newsmagazine ’s Best of Whistler Chef for 2005; James Linklater, executive chef for Whistler Blackcomb; and Magie Fradette, Whistler-Blackcomb pastry chef and former Montreal chocolatier.

Guests watched the fabulous five work their magic in the open kitchen looking out onto dinner seating pulling everything from oyster fritters to sweet dough tulips from the oven. Araxi wine director and sommelier Pat Allan orchestrated a busy team of volunteer servers shuttling plates and wine glasses among the three rooms all aglow in candlelight.

Wedding planner Linda Marshall transformed the rustic log inn into a winter wonderland with silver dusted white roses and evergreen garlands dressing white tablecloths and a roaring fireplace.

It was a black tie affair with gentlemen donning tuxes for the special occasion, but the farmer and the dell was easy enough to spot in plaid button down, and if that didn’t expose him his scrutiny of how vegetables were cooked was a dead giveaway.

Usually the winemaker is the most sought-after dinner companion, but in the valley of the potatoes, it’s the farmer who shares flood stories and the magic of reading weather, pulling the soul of the valley straight from the earth and onto your plate. After dinner with a homegrown farmer, you’ll never look at your vegetables the same.

Pemberton root vegetables and fruit shone brilliantly in the menu, along with meat and wine.

The mild Pemberton Valley salsify (think rooty carrot only white) and crosnes (Japanese artichokes) added wonderful texture to the herb-crusted sable fish with braised octopus.

The octopus was a first for me and to my surprise, a wonderful new adventure. The meat was firm, but not rubbery as cartoon octopuses might have you think, as well as flavourful like the mild white fish that it accompanied.

The dinner was as fine as any five-star restaurant found in the big city, but the atmosphere was wonderfully down to earth. There were a few wine swirlers in the bunch, but fine dining was a first to many guests as they picked up the herb blanket with their fork trying to guess whether it was fish skin or not. Others wondered at the orange jelly (caviar) scattered on top of kushi oysters at the reception. But once identified, quips fell silent and smiles and wide eyes did the talking.

Seafood and weighty meats are usually the stars of the evening, but this evening Pemberton vegetables would rally as a serious contender, with the roasted North Arm Farm Jerusalem artichoke and golden ball turnip soup stealing my once vegetarian heart.

While the Nicola Valley venison loin with rich sun-dried blueberry and port demi glaze melted in your mouth with all the satisfaction of dark chocolate after a month-long chocolate fast, the middle course showcasing Pemberton braised beef shank was the star of the night.

There were so many flavours going on in the dish of beef shank and Salt Spring Island goat cheese stuffed into a sweet golden onion placed on a smoked tomato and fennel sauce. All of the strong distinct flavours played fair and shared sensory time without elbowing each other out.

Different B.C. wines were paired with each course, but the starlet of the winter’s eve escapade was of course the Pemberton Valley Vineyard Late Harvest Pinot Gris 2006. This wine is not available to the public. For the event, the winery specially bottled the dessert elixir whose flavour fell somewhere between a sweet vino or subdued ice wine. The pinot gris was coupled with a poached Bartlett pear, also reaped from Pemberton soil, wrapping up the evening with a course 100 per cent Pemberton made.

The dinner was only one of many well-attended events hosted over the four-day Pemberton Winterfest that charged the otherwise quiet town into a hub of excitement showcasing small-town welcome with big-time local talent, both in and out of the kitchen.

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