The Okanagan Valley. 7th - 26th October.
07.10.2015 - 26.10.2015
The final stretch of our west Canada trip has brought us to the lovely Okanagan Valley, situated around 5 hours north east of Vancouver, but stretching all the way down to the US border at its most southern point. In Canada it's well known for 3 reasons, it's warm climate, it's fruit and it's wine, so much so that some even call it Canada's answer to the Napa valley. Perhaps not difficult then to figure out why we decided to finish off the Canadian leg of our trip here!
With such warm weather, as well as a large network of enormous lakes and a landscape of small rolling hills, the Okanagan is also farming central - something which is very clear from the moment you get there. There are farms everywhere! It's much more populated than a lot of Canada, but as most houses have land with them it still feels very open. It also means that as with many farming areas in the UK, there's a really strong sense of community, which we were quickly welcomed into with open arms. The friendliness bar had already been set pretty high in Canada, but we saw it reach a whole new level in the Okanagan. Within our first hour in the area a16 year old boy on a bus had approached us not to ask for cigarettes as I'd expect in the UK, but to welcome us to his hometown of Lumby, wishing us a pleasant stay there. All very surreal!
Farming was in part also a reason why we had chosen to come to this particular corner of the Okanagan. We had been keen when choosing our work placements in Canada to have the opportunity to learn new skills, and so when we came across this one in friendly little Lumby, which was looking for help on a family cheese business and small holding we jumped at the chance. And we are so glad we did! Our hosts were the wonderful Ruffa family, who had come to Canada a few years ago from Switzerland to teach Canadians a thing or two about what good cheese tastes like. Over the last 4 years, they had been steadily setting a base here, building their own house, acquiring a range of animals to increase self-sustainability and most importantly establishing their cheese business. Now here's the thing about Canada, their supermarkets do not sell good cheese - end of. What they call cheese is arguably not even cheese by the standards of any European, it's more a block of orange plastic with some flavourings in. So, it's fair to say that there was a definite gap in the market there and this family were doing a tremendous job of filling it. The business was very small still, but my did that cheese taste good! I don't think we've ever eaten so much cheese in our lives - but we didn't even care, it was that good we could have eaten it morning, noon and night (who am I kidding, we DID eat it morning, noon and night).
So here's some pictures of us and our cheese making. Sadly we are far from being able to come home and make wonderful cheese ourselves as its actually a pretty complicated process, which Igor, the cheese maker, had been refining for many years in Switzerland. I will say this though, it is a process of many steps involving heating, cooling, sieving, stirring, straining, washing (numerous times) and turning, so next time you eat a chunk of good cheese take a moment to savour how much work and love has gone into that wonderful taste, it really is a labour of love.
One of the other roles we took on with much enthusiasm was selling the cheese at the local farmers markets. This was the time when we really got to know the local community as farmers markets are a pretty big thing in British Columbia. The government even give market vouchers to families on low incomes so they can eat decent quality food - what an amazing idea! Even in the short period we were there, both the customers and other stall holders welcomed us into the community warmly, genuinely keen to know who we were and how long we'd be staying with them for. It helps that because Canada is still such a young country, many of the older people we spoke to were either born in the UK or their parents were and so we met a number of people with connections to either Wales or Hampshire. We also happened to be there over Canadian Thanksgiving, giving us a taste of how farming communities celebrate that particular holiday. It turns out that firing firework stuffed pumpkins out of catapults and playing tenpin bowling with mis-shaped squash is the answer. This is country bumpkin at its best!
Of course it hasn't been all about work in the Okanagan. One of our first stops was of course the vineyards. We hadn't even realised that Canada made wine before coming here, but it's actually a pretty big industry out here and most importantly the wine is good...mostly. It all started about 30 years ago when a couple of European families had the brainwave of using the many fields of grapes which were already readily available to make wine, and now the vast majority of wine drunk here is home grown. So we were in wine heaven, able to pass from vineyard to vineyard, tasting lots of yummy wine, enjoying fresh local food and basking in the 20 degrees sunshine that the Okanagan still gets in October.
We were also able to get out on some lovely walks. The landscape here is very different to the Rockies, so we were never going to get the breathtaking scenery we'd experienced there, but it was beautiful nonetheless. The lakes in the Okanagan go on for 20-30 miles quite easily and the walks are a lot flatter, which made a nice change! One particularly cool one went along an old rail track, crossing lots of trestle bridges that spanned deep ravines. A little hair-raising but lots of fun.
One of the best things about this leg of our trip though was the lovely family we got to be part of for 3 weeks. Being a half German, half Swiss-Italian family living in Canada, it was an eclectic mix of cultures but that made it all the more fun to be a part of. They had 4 children under 10 and so there was never a dull (or quiet) moment and we were warmly welcomed into the family by all. We went to hockey games, went to church, played with the kids, shared many a delicious meal (home reared pork and chicken and of course lots of cheese, yum!), and had long chats where we shared common interests and knowledge. We even became pretty fond of the piglets and chickens who followed us around all day hoping for food! Our weeks there really did feel like home and we are already eagerly hoping to return again some day. A very special experience.
Our last couple of days in British Columbia were spent back where it all started, in Vancouver almost 2 months to the day since we arrived. We can hardly believe it's been 2 months already but it was also a great way to reflect on what a fantastic time it's been. Thankfully, it won't be the last we see of Canada, as we'll be heading into the east side in late January to see what a proper winter looks like! For now though, we head for warmer climates as we road trip down the west coast of the USA through Washington, Oregon and California.
As I finish off this blog, I actually write to you from the US. We crossed the border a few days ago with not a little trepidation due to some particular hostile answers from the US embassy prior to our departure. It turns out we needn't have worried. This is the Canadian border, they were far more interested in having a friendly chat about Mark's job than they were about stopping us crossing the border, which made a welcome change from your standard airport interrogation. So long Canada, we really are going to miss you!