Eating (really) Local: a Diary of a Place & its People

Local: then and now

In 1980s rural Ontario, eating local meant weeding my mom’s sprawling vegetable garden, wearing eau-de-vinegar for days as we canned and craving the processed foods my friends were eating as yet another jar of beans/carrots appeared on our January dinner table. Local was a geographical adjective used to describe things other than food, because us country folks grew our own vegetables while people in urban centres had supermarkets.

Photography by Jeannette Montgomery


Today, we’re collectively rejoicing over local: food, wine, ales, spirits – and just about anything else. After being inundated with manufactured products on grocery store shelves for the last few decades, food trends are experiencing a boomerang effect; we’re choosing dirt-laden bundles from farmers’ markets over packages of strangely symmetrical carrots. The food industry is canning, pickling, and from-scratching at a tremendous rate – and we’re eating it up.

For two months I had the opportunity to observe Okanagan-based Joy Road Catering, local champions, as they prepared for a hyper-local food experience: a 1.6 Mile Dinner at Orofino Winery in Cawston. The premise: everything edible must be sourced from within 1.6 miles of the winery.

Before you think ‘yeah, whatever – another hipster local food story’, consider the building blocks of good dining – like salt, olive oil, and acid (vinegars). Joy Road was permitted to cheat on one thing: salt. All other ingredients – from almond milk in the dessert to the spit roasted pig – was grown within the designated boundary.

Is eating local, by this definition, possible? In one generation, we’ve gone from most homes having a homemaker to double-income families as the norm. A home cooked meal has become boiling pre-packaged pasta for 11 minutes and adding meat to a jar of tomato sauce. Most of us don’t mill our own rye. With the lives we’re leading, eating super locally isn’t likely to happen on a regular basis.

But there are ways. With Bon Iver playing on a kitchen stereo, having access to someone called Dan the Milkman, and living in a produce-rich neck of the woods, anything is possible.

June 25: the chefs

“We’re the big barn-like building with a blue roof,” says Dana by way of directions. It’s a warm day, and I negotiate my windows-down car through a few hairpin turns on the drive to Joy Rd. The headquarters for Joy Road Catering is in a large A-frame style home that wouldn’t be out of place at a ski resort, with its sloped metal roof and olive green wood siding. A wrap-around deck overlooks Penticton and provides camouflage for a commercial kitchen that spans the entire basement.

On first glance the kitchen appears small. Then bodies begin to fill spaces – on either side of the centre island where prepping/rolling/chopping takes place; at the large mixer where Dana’s coveted breads come to life; by the stove where six burners can be on at once. It’s controlled chaos that gradually builds, the noises of single players uniting as a multi-instrument orchestra with an ease borne from many rehearsals.

Today, Cam and Dana expect only two or three of their kitchen fleet; it’s mid-week, which is like Friday for everyone else but not quite. I ask about the Bon Iver tunes and learn that everyone on the team has different yet somewhat overlapping musical tastes, except for one person. “Cam likes free jazz – we all kind of fight that,” says Dana.

Cam and Dana are originally from Ontario. Cam graduated from the George Brown Culinary Management Program and worked at some of the finest restaurants in Toronto (Avalon, now closed) and Montreal (Toque!). Dana is a graduate of the Stratford Chef’s School and their extensive pastry-training program and worked at similarly high-end restaurants as well as with several French bakeries. Each is well traveled, having spent time in New York, California, France, Mexico, Portugal and Spain for culinary inspiration.

The decision to live in the Okanagan was an easy one. With so much access to fresh, local ingredients, the two chefs found themselves unable (and unwilling) to leave. Friends Heidi Noble and Michael Dinn at JoieFarm lured them in, and helping launch The Bench Artisan Food Market sealed the deal. “It was really neat, having a local kitchen like that,” says Dana of their time with The Bench. It’s a different approach than their urban kitchen experiences, one that can focus on fresh and in-season.

As staff arrive and the kitchen duties get underway, Dana and Cam invite me upstairs. The area is spacious, with vintage teak furniture and several enormous windows that reach for the sky. A small, open kitchen blends into the background, allowing for a generous dining and living area to take centre stage. After settling in, I inquire about how the two met 1.6 Mile Dinner hosts John and Virginia Weber of Orofino. Like the drive to Joy Road, the path is a winding one.

“We were at the (Farmers’) market every week,” says Dana. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we just buy all the stuff there, take it home, and write a menu?’” Inspired by Heidi’s orchard dinners, Dana and Cam wanted to find a location to host long table dinners. Friends introduced them to God’s Mountain. “We met Sarah, and realized she’s a totally kindred spirit,” says Dana.

Sarah Allen is the owner of God’s Mountain Estate, a villa-style bed and breakfast on the east mountain shore of Skaha Lake. Sarah wanted someone to regularly cater a casual dinner. After a few conversations, Sarah and Joy Road came to agree on small, long-table, family-style dining with an elegant twist. “We wanted to do something pretty high-end, and she wanted to do something pretty humble,” says Cam. “It took some time, and we kind of met in the middle. The compromise, and working together, has been really great.”

The first year Dana and Cam invited everyone they knew; eventually they began asking their favourite wineries to partner for a winemaker series. John and Virginia had attended an alfresco dinner and were wholeheartedly on board to collaborate. “They came to our dinner and were like…yeah, we really get these guys,” says Dana. That was also the year Frederic Morin from Joe Beef came to dinner. “You never know who’s going to be at the table.” (Morin returns every year)

Realizing I was encroaching on what little ‘down time’ they have in the summer months, we make plans to reconnect so I can see the menu’s progress. “It’s hard to know this far in advance how the season will go,” explains Cam. As we descend into the kitchen, I notice that Bon Iver has been replaced by early ‘80s funk. Interesting.

July 2: the place

“I think it started as a really cool idea,” says John. “We wanted to do an event, and we had this beautiful place to show off.” This ‘beautiful’ place is their strawbale winery and (very) large patio that doubles as crushpad in the fall. It’s a fairytale yard shaded by almond and walnut trees, surrounded by vineyards and mountains.

Originally from Saskatchewan, John and Virginia fell in love with the Similkameen Valley in 2001. By 2004/2005 they had completed construction of Canada’s first strawbale winery. Now entering their 10th vintage, production at Orofino has grown from 500 to 5,000 cases per year.

As Virginia explains the beginnings of the 1.6 mile dinner, Cooper – the family retriever – lounges against my legs and I juggle note-taking with scratching a furry head. “When we started, there wasn’t a lot going on like this,” she says. Early on, they hosted Pizza in the Piazza nights – folks would nibble and sip in the summer sun. Orofino started to build a solid reputation within the community and wine world, and they got to know Bogner’s in Penticton. When it comes to local and sustainable, “Darren walks the walk,” says John. The 1.6 mile dinner was born – and Bogner’s catered for the first three years.

The attendee list grew progressively longer, year after year. The third dinner was over two nights with 50 people each night and special trips to producers where appetizers and wine awaited. “Maybe that was a little too much,” John says with a smile. The dinner peaks at 100 people, sometimes as high as 120, but that can be a stretch for their small space.

With my iced coffee gone, it’s time to plan for pig-meet-part-deux. We arrange to tour the 1.6 mile perimeter that John and Virginia assigned – somewhat arbitrarily. “We drove it to make sure we could include everyone we wanted,” says John. “The 1.6 miles is kind of a fun jab at the new hype over ‘local’. We pretty much live it.”

July 30: the community, perimeter, and a pig

In any group of people, a number of them will say they know their neighbourhood quite well. In Cawston, a small community in the Similkameen valley just east of Keremeos, you know what’s in your neighbour’s garden.

Our first stop is a trim house with a nicely mown lawn and heavily laden fruit trees. Off to the side, in the shade, is a small building that looks like a child’s playhouse – complete with shingled roof, full-sized door, and carriage-house style lantern. As we approach, I notice the greyed board fence running the edge of the property. Then I hear the pigs.

Two pink faces look up in greeting, noses slightly muddy. With the overhanging trees and little front porch the setting is something out of Charlotte’s Web. The neighbours have been raising these pigs since spring and have promised one to the 1.6 mile dinner.  “I grew up on a farm, but this part is still a little hard for me,” says Virginia, reaching down to feed the pigs. I know what she means.

While it’s reassuring to know the pigs have lived well, meeting them is somewhat unsettling. We have removed the living of our lives from our food sources, so much that we anthropomorphize our food. It speaks to something fundamentally flawed in what we consider offensive; rarely do we flinch in the face of gory action-adventure movies, but ask someone to meet Wilbur and people get squirmy.

We bid farewell to pig one and pig two, and Virginia leads me through a labyrinth of side streets that don’t seem to appear on many maps. “Gabi’s beans” are almost ready. They’ll be on the menu as haricot vert, and are highly anticipated. Similkameen Apiaries – regulars at the Penticton Farmers Market – have a starring role in dessert. Virginia drives slowly; locals recognize her car, wave, and scoot around us without a worry.

The dinner is a fundraiser for Kobau Park, a small recreation area southwest of the highway near the Similkameen River. When John and Virginia first moved to the area, the playground was nothing more than a weedy field and poorly maintained baseball pit (“ball is big around here,” explains Virginia). Thanks to 1.6 mile dinner guests, the park has climbing equipment, swings, slides, and better ball diamonds.

We skirt the edges of the perimeter and pull up to a small hut slightly larger than a doghouse. “I wonder if he has any eggs…” Inside the hut is a new refrigerator packed with dozens of crates and a slot for payment. I leave five dollars in the door, take a farm-fresh organic dozen, and think of egg salad sandwiches.

Dan the Milkman is nearby, as are Rhys and Alishan of Little Farm Winery. A favourite Market producer, Justine, lives in a small house behind a row of gigantic, happy sunflowers. Yvonne and Morris (Farmer’s Dotter) are out of the 1.6 mile boundary, but we try to glimpse their cobb oven that can hold 70 loaves of bread at one time.

We return to John and Virginia’s by way of a slightly more direct route, and arrive in minutes. That’s funny, because we spent an hour meandering along a wonderland path of farms. Like most folks who visit and decide to make this home, I’m hooked.

August 1 – 7: coming together

It’s busier in the kitchen: J.P. helps Cam butcher a pig into tasty morsels; Alex works the mixer, blending pastry dough; Sara uses the outdoor kitchen to blanch tomatoes; Haley arrives and joins the tempo without missing a beat (“the zucchini roll action is under the tray with the mushroom caps,”); Dana juggles peeling, baking, and directing traffic. Someone has commandeered the kitchen stereo and The Staple Singers belt out “I’ll Take You There”.

“Some people will notice there are perfect little garlics,” says Dana, patiently peeling individual cloves by hand. “That’s why we do it – it brings people joy.” In this seemingly chaotic but well-controlled kitchen, joy is almost palpable. It could be the stove filled with pots of brightly coloured vegetables, the fresh flowers everywhere, the patchwork of posters on a wall behind the aprons, or the stacks of mixing bowls. But all of this feels like set dressing supporting a larger picture.

Considering the demands, it’s amazing how much joy is in the room – this week it’s two events on Thursday, a wedding on Friday, two weddings on Saturday plus the farmers’ market, and three dinners on Sunday. Of course, the 1.6 mile dinner looms. Preparation is year-long but the bulk comes in the days leading up to it, partly due to geographic restrictions and a limited ability to substitute if something doesn’t happen as planned.

Percussion fills the air, only it’s not from the stereo. Dana and Alex play a muted beat as they pound sourdough into shape. On the other side of the room, Cam rifles through a large drawer of metal utensils and creates his own free-jazz melee. Gradually, the kitchen falls into a rhythm only discernable to the conductors.

August 10: the 1.6 Mile grand finale

An unblemished sky and flute of sparkling wine greets us one warm Saturday evening in early August. The temperature is toasty, but we happily take it over the threat of thundershowers plaguing the region. With a glass of 2012 Orofino Moscato Frizzante in hand, we explored the grounds at Orofino while servers circulate trays of peaches wrapped in coppa with basil leaves and cones of fingerling & blue potato chips (aka ‘Lauren and Paul’s fabulous potatoes’).

John and Virginia welcome each guest with a genuine smile, often a hug, and sometimes a teasing comment – like how my fella and I are sitting at the ‘rowdy table’ (go table 3!). They’re easy to befriend, and to be friends with.

The winery crush pad is transformed into the largest patio dinner party I’ve ever seen: rows of tables dressed with white linens, fresh flowers in painted white jars and dozens of wine glasses. It is certainly a setting fit for a local feast.

There’s something I must disclose: I dislike onions. The strong flavour of a raw onion is not something I’ve ever acquired a taste for – my apologies to onion lovers everywhere. However, on this night I ate an onion tart…and loved every bite of it. In fact, there were onions throughout the meal and I didn’t bat an eyelash at any of them. There’s hope for me yet.

We dine on haricot vert with walnut pesto (Gabi’s beans), heirloom tomato gazpacho with hand-peeled cherry tomatoes, spit roasted porchetta (thank you, local pig), and Pavlova. That’s right, Pavlova – made with milk from Orofino’s almonds, Corey’s eggs, and Similkameen Apiary honey. “I finally figured out how to make whipped cream for this!” exclaims Dana. The only thunder is the applause. Growers and producers are at the table and acknowledged for each course. Dana shows us what raw rye looks like pre-harvest, and tells how it was milled days prior for that special onion tart. John addresses the wine pairings and apologizes that the 2008 Riesling is no longer available to purchase – but it’s in our glasses, so we forgive him.

By dessert, the air has cooled and we’re in the twinkly glow of lights strung through those almond trees. As people slowly siphon off into the night, tables are cleared and us stragglers discard our shoes in favour of the cool lawn. My wineglass fills with ale as if by magic and the music gets a wee bit louder. We gather teak folding chairs in a haphazard circle, share stories, and let the anticipation of the day leave us. It’s possible that a few people danced in ridiculously glittery high heels and perhaps there’s even a photo floating around – but I’ll never tell.

In our regular lives, we’re surrounded by pre-packaged everything: vacations, bedding, telecommunications services. Sometimes it’s easier to pull up to the drive-thru for a morning coffee and donut than it is to boil an egg and grind some beans. Admittedly, I’m a fan of pouring a bowl of instant cereal over making a cheese omelette before starting my day. We make choices, all day, every day, to live in not just one way but in a patchwork quilt of ways. If we’re struggling with long hours, commuting to work, raising kids, walking the dog, and ‘being present’, it’s understandable that we occasionally borrow from the book of local when we can – rather than make it a Golden Rule. Fortunately, we have people like Cam and Dana and John and Virginia making the effort to give us a taste of what we’re missing.

As a pre-teen I quickly tired of mom’s home-canned beans and reveled in any opportunity to eat a squeaky, precision-cut alternative when sleeping over at the home of a friend. Our homespun life didn’t have the shiny surfaces and clean lines portrayed in food advertising, and I didn’t understand why. Now I do. Our lives are not about clean lines and precision. If we look closely at the individual parts that make things like the 1.6 Mile Dinner special, it’s the raw beauty – the irregular chips from Lauren and Paul’s potatoes, the textured walls of strawbale, the sticky goodness of a piece of honeycomb. These aren’t manufactured objects; they’re labours, made with intention and purpose.

Is it possible to eat this local, all the time? I’d say you probably could, if you’re a chef with food-growing neighbours. But perhaps that’s not the right question. Maybe the question is this: How can I be more mindful of what I’m eating, how it’s prepared, and where it comes from? Because after spending time with the folks in the kitchen at Joy Road, I noticed things I might not have noticed before – like each of those hand-peeled tomatoes. And they were delicious.

We’ve structured our lives around urban centres that pose challenges to eating locally. Rooftop gardens and urban agriculture are on the rise, and that’s a good thing. Large-scale sustainable food systems are part of a bigger conversation that other people are having right now, but it’s a bit like turning a large ship – it moves very slowly.

While we wait for our local ship to come in, we can make decisions that will eventually lead us to our own 1.6 mile dinner – perhaps the road will be long, but it’s bound to be tasty.

*the 2013 1.6 Mile Dinner menu is following the photos below


A Menu To Celebrate Orofino Wines

& The Bounty From 1.6 Miles

 Moscato Frizzante 

Lauren & Paul’s fabulous potatoes

Fingerline & blue potato chips

Peaches wrapped in coppa with basil leaves


2008 Riesling

Alsace style onion tart with freshly milled rye

Bakes in the Orofino wood oven

Hung goat yogurt, new onions, pancetta & thyme

Haricot vert with walnut pesto


2012 Celentano Vineyard Gamay

Heirloom tomato gazpacho with peeled cherry tomatoes

Chorizo & pickled asparagus

Espelette pepper


2008 Beleza

A Celebration of the Whole Beast!

Hams baked in hay,

Fresh red wine sausage with shallots

Spit roasted porchetta


“Creamed” fresh corn with corn sabayon and oregano

Zucchini & heirloom tomato gratin with slivered garlic


2011 Chill Ice Wine

Pavlova with Corey’s eggs, Orofino almond milk

Santa Rosa plum, apricot, peach & berries

Similkameen Apiary Honey & honeycomb


Fresh mint tisane

Written By:

Jeannette is EAT's Okanagan writer.\r\n\r\nWith her rural Canadian roots and love of grand experiences, Jeannette is equal \r\n\r\nmeasures country and city. Since moving from Vancouver to the Okanagan in 2007, \r\n\r\nshe quit ...

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