Taste the British Columbia Effect: A Tour of BC's Bountiful Regions

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Here in British Columbia, food connects us to the land, to the moment, to our sense of well-being; it nourishes our souls as well as our bodies, allowing us a taste of what locals call the British Columbia Effect.

This is a place where ingredients come to a chef’s table not just from the farm, but from forests and fields, and the rivers and ocean, the snow-capped mountains, and from wind-swept grasslands. Here, nature offers flavours that can come only from our unique place in the world, inspiring cuisines that are wholesome and authentic, rooted in both time and place, and which showcase each region’s distinctive geography and climate.

As Warren Barr, the chef-owner of Pluvio Restaurant + Rooms in Ucluelet, says: “Food should taste and feel like where we are”—and wherever you eat in British Columbia, you’ll find that it truly does.

Vancouver, Coast & Mountains: A food philosophy born

 

After winding some 1,375 kilometres from the Rocky Mountains, the Fraser River spills into the Strait of Georgia through a wide, fertile delta that is home to fruit, vegetable, and dairy farms, as well as most of the province’s population. With so much abundance on its doorstep, it’s little wonder that Vancouver, BC’s biggest city, has become a leader in “locavorism”.

Andrea Carlson, chef-owner of the hyper-local Burdock & Co. on Main Street, is one true believer.

“The landscape inspires me through its proximity to the ocean and its mild coastal environment.”

Carlson is also the creator of the first 100-mile restaurant menu back in 2006 at Raincity Grill, and has long been finding poetry in local ingredients: “A backdrop of coastal forests exhale the fragrance of spruce and fir whose tips we harvest for our use. Wild Nootka roses baking in sunlight perfume the air and inspire us to blend them with honeys. Beyond the rosebushes, the ocean spray is alive with brine and iodine that sparks a taste for seaweeds and gifts from the sea.”

It is these gifts from nature that make their way to restaurant menus across the city, like the sustainable sushi at Miku, the buttery sablefish at upscale Bluewater Café, and the crisply battered cod ‘n’ chips at casual Popina Canteen at Granville Island. These gifts also have fuelled the city’s growing number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, such as the casual Beetbox in the West End and more upscale The Acorn in Mount Pleasant.

Pemberton Slow Food Cycle at Crystal Lodge | Tourism Whistler/Mike Crane

Meanwhile, up the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, chef James Walt has long been a pioneer in sourcing local ingredients for the two restaurants he oversees in Whistler, Araxi and Il Caminetto, and continues to be inspired by the region’s natural splendour.

“We’ve got three beautiful valleys and amazing seafood, spectacular produce and a wine country that’s evolving at an impressive rate…For me, it doesn’t get much better—We’re literally spoiled.”

Walt was actually the first there to serve ethically raised beef from Pemberton, the same mountain town that is famous for its potatoes. In fact, the region’s spuds vie with those from Peru as some of the world’s best, and feature in the award-winning vodka created by Tyler Schramm at Pemberton Distillery as well as in the proudly local Hardbite Chips.

Vancouver Island: Relishing in raw ruggedness

 

This is a place where food grows wild. On long, narrow Vancouver Island and the archipelagos scattered between its rocky coastline and the mainland, the climate is so mild and warm, the soil so lush and fertile, that everything grows here, from Pinot Noir and olives to citrus fruits and tea. It’s no wonder local chefs like Jesse McLeery of Pilgrimme on Galiano Island or Nick Nutting at Tofino’s Wolf in the Fog spend almost as much time foraging in the woods and on the beach as they spend in the kitchen.

Just down the road from Tofino, in Ucluelet, the remote village on the rocky peninsula that juts into Barkley Sound, Pluvio chef Warren Barr hunts for cynamoka berries, mushrooms, seaweeds, spruce tips, and Nootka roses—being careful, of course, to do it sustainably so as not to damage the sensitive ecology of the place. He captures the essence of his community in dishes like albacore tuna tartare “served on a big, gnarly cracker that feels like the coastline here” or wild blackberries transformed into vinegar that adds local flavour to salads all year long.

“We want to make sure that the food we’re creating is food from here. It’s appropriate to the West Coast, and appropriate to Ucluelet.”

Cowichan and Southern Vancouver Island | Ben Giesbrecht

This vision is reflected in restaurants across the Island, including those found in Victoria, the provincial capital. Located on the island’s southern tip, Victoria is surrounded by growers like Fox Glove Farms and Saanich Organics whose ingredients feature on menus of notable farm-to-table restaurants in the city like Brad Holmes’ Olo Restaurant and Hayley Rosenberg’s Nourish Kitchen & Cafe. Tender farmed mussels, clams, and oysters from Outlandish Shellfish Guild also appear in chowders and seafood platters on many Island menus, and restaurants serve craft selections from nearby proprietors, like Cowichan Valley-based Merridale Cidery & Distillery and Sea Cider Farm in Saanich.

“We want to make sure that the food we’re creating is food from here...We’ve tried not to lose sight of that raw ruggedness."- Chef Warren Barr, Pluvio in Uclulet

Thompson Okanagan: Sunny, fertile valleys

 

Both the Thompson and Okanagan valleys were created, in part, by glacial activity that left behind fertile soils, unique terroir, and two very different culinary scenes in this most diverse of regions. (It’s also the first destination in North America to receive the sustainable tourism certification from Biosphere International and the Responsible Tourism Institute.)

The Thompson is a place of cattle ranches, grasslands, and trout-filled lakes, as well as a thriving Indigenous culture that culminates each year in the Kamloopa Powwow, a spectacular celebration of the Secwepemc people’s heritage in storytelling, song, and dance in traditional regalia. The Okanagan is orchard, beach, and wine country, where two-thirds of the province’s 280 licensed grape wineries can be found, and 84% of its vineyard land.

But there’s also much more than Riesling and Syrah here, which is why so many talented chefs are moving to the region. Foragers appear at the kitchen door with wild asparagus and porcini mushrooms. Farmers show up with crates of tomatoes, peppers, plums, melons, cherries, and apples, some twenty varieties of them. There are honey producers and cheesemakers, a farmer who grows oyster mushrooms, and another who raises char in his tanks in Oliver.

“Even with winter, you’re still getting fresh vegetables,” says Murray MacDonald, executive chef at The Bear, the Fish, the Root & the Berry, the Indigenous-inspired restaurant at Spirit Ridge Resort in Osoyoos.

“What the farmers bring in just blows my mind.”

Mostly, though, MacDonald tries to use what’s indigenous to both the land and the culture of the people who’ve lived here for thousands of years. “Just down on the lakeside there are berries and spruce tips and wild rosehips right now for rosehip jam. Coming here, I get this really positive, happy, spiritual energy.”

Tinhorn Creek Vineyard in Oliver | Andrew Strain

The abundance of more northern parts of the region also inspires Chris Whittaker, the executive chef at the Indigenous-owned Quaaout Lodge & Spa on Little Shuswap Lake. Originally from Ontario, he came west for the seafood, but found so much more.

He treasures the connections he’s made cooking in Vancouver, travelling the province, tasting all it offers, and more recently, moving to the Shuswap, where he hunts, fishes, cooks, and raises his young family.

“Being an avid outdoorsman and living in the Shuswap has further connected me to what it means to be a chef and a British Columbian.”

The last 20-plus years have shown Whittaker the diversity of the province and the connection to place it offers. “BC is so rich in landscapes, growing regions, bounties of wild foods, and passionate people that grow and harvest these foods,” he says. “Not only is the region rich in bounty, but I have never felt more at home,” he says of the Sushwap. “We are so unique and have amazing stories to tell.”

Northern BC: Tastes of traditions, old and new

 

The province’s north is a vast and wild land, (for scale, think larger than California), that sweeps from the Haida Gwaii archipelago in the west to the grain and cattle farms of the Peace River Valley in the east, and from the Yukon/Alaska border to the north and the city of Prince George in the south.

For millennia, Indigenous peoples have lived in the north’s glaciated valleys, towering mountain ranges, and mist-shrouded coastline, cooking with what the land and sea provide. Visitors hungry for a taste of their traditions can make their way to Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, where chef Keenawaii (Roberta Olson) welcomes guests into her home to enjoy traditional Haida foods like sguu (dried seaweed), K’aaw (herring eggs on kelp), smoked salmon, venison, and wild berries.

The Cow Bay Harbour in Prince Rupert | Andrew Strain

The flavours of the wilderness also appear in the growing restaurant scene in booming communities like Smithers, Fort St. John, and especially the port city of Prince Rupert, gateway to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. Prince Rupert’s Cow Bay neighbourhood is dotted with charming shops and restaurants, like Waterfront Restaurant at the Crest Hotel (visitors are urged to try the North Coast seafood potage).

There, you’ll also find Fukasaku, the first sushi restaurant in BC to be 100% certified by the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise seafood sustainability program. Chef-owner Dai Fukasaku uses only local, seasonal seafood, served with wasabi from Vancouver Island, sake from Vancouver, and locally crafted beer. As the ancestors knew, and today’s chefs are discovering, the land and the sea will provide the nourishment we need, as long as we take care of it in return.

"It’s about being patient, learning, and listening to the seasons, re-connecting with knowledge and awareness—simply looking in our plentiful backyard..."- Chef Josh Mateschitz, Pitchfork Eatery in Nelson

Kootenay Rockies: Culinary perspectives, shaped by history

 

The mountainous southeastern corner of British Columbia is a land of adventure, and that applies as much to dining as it does to hiking, skiing, and biking those towering peaks.

Between the four mountain ranges lie crystalline lakes and fertile valleys that grow sweet fruits (and a certain other, not-so-secret-anymore cash crop), and have been both a place of refuge (for Doukhobours and draft dodgers) and internment (for Japanese Canadians during the Second World War).

The region’s history, combined with its wild remoteness, have made it a place of compassion (which is why so many communities have made food security part of their mandate), with a welcoming attitude to new ideas, flavours, and cuisines.

 

Nelson | Kari Medig

That worldly approach to dining is how chef Josh Mateschitz and sous chef Thalia Thiessen still cook at Pitchfork Eatery in Nelson. Although their dishes are influenced by Morocco, Asia, and France, they source ingredients from local growers when possible, and often straight from their own vegetable farm.

As a chef, Mateschitz’s vision is simple: “My inspiration is rooted in the quality and flavour of ingredients. This means using the food that surrounds me—that is native to my home.”

“There is something wholesome and special about food straight from our soil, raised on our land, foraged from our forests, caught in our waters,” he says. “It speaks of where we are from. That is the truest form of care and commitment to our environment and our lifestyle.” And “When we do this,” he adds, “it just seems the rest falls into place. It is a harmony that is being built between farmers, business owners, families, the land, and the seasons. The benefits are abundant, and it is always worth it.”

“From the dirt to the plate in one mere day. To me, that defines health, nutrition, well-being.”

Cariboo Chilcotin Coast:Wild country, wild food

 

From the misty fjords of the Great Bear Rainforest to the golden plateaus of ranch lands, and from and the Gold Rush Trail to the jagged peaks of the Cariboo Mountains, this is wild country. Waters are rich with trout and salmon, fields with cattle and grain, forests with berries, mushrooms, spruce tips, and birch syrup.

Small mining towns still dot the historic route followed by Gold Rush prospectors in the 1860s, and cattle ranches sprawl across the grasslands surrounding them. Cowboys and stampedes are still a proud tradition here. Guest ranches offer city slickers a tranquil escape from the busyness of daily life, where the clean air of the open range nourishes the soul, and the body is fed by wholesome meals flavoured by wild ingredients.

Echo Valley Ranch & Spa | Blake Jorgenson

Perhaps nowhere combines the spiritual and the physical like Echo Valley Ranch & Spa, a place where east and west, cowboy and Thai culture, meet in an unsurpassed natural setting. The ranch, owned by Norm and Nan Dove, perches 3,650 feet high in the Cariboo Mountains, and its four microclimates make it one of BC’s most bountiful places for wild foods.

Here, guests can ride the ranch’s horses and join the cowboys afterwards for a western-style barbecue that might include rosemary-scented lamb cooked over the open fire, salmon that was leaping in nearby waters not long before, beef from their own herd, and salads made from the greens that grow wild on the property or ripen in the greenhouse. Traditional s’mores are always on the menu, of course, and wine from Fort Berens Estate Winery in nearby Lillooet is a satisfying accompaniment. And then, for something completely unique yet somehow perfectly fitting in this magical place, guests can also enjoy the nurturing elements of Thai culture brought here from Nan Dove’s homeland—the healing benefits of the Royal Baan Thai spa and the vibrantly sweet-sour-salty-hot flavours of weekly Thai feasts (as authentic as any you will find in Bangkok’s best restaurants).

Spring rolls and fresh herb salads, a relaxing massage, a brisk canter across a field…Life here is good for the body and good for the soul. Now that’s the British Columbia Effect.

Feature Image: Sicamous Lookout. Photo: Darren Robinson/Shuswap Tourism

WRITTEN BY: Joanne Sasvari

From: North Vancouver
Joanne Sasvari has travelled to many places around the globe, writing about food, drink and culture, but her favourite destination is right here at home in British Columbia. Based in North Vancouver, she writes about BC for a variety of print and online publications, and is also the author of Frommer’s EasyGuide to Vancouver & Victoria. When not exploring the most delicious corners of the province, she edits Westcoast Homes & Design magazine and uses her Wine and Spirits Education Trust training to savour the best local libations.