Menus from an Orchard Table by Heidi Noble is a lovely Canadian cookbook, celebrating the food and wine of the Okanagan in beautiful British Columbia.
This book caught my eye for two reasons. Firstly, I used to live in British Columbia, in the far west of Canada, and having travelled the world over, still think it is the most beautiful, happy, bewitching region I have encountered. There is so much natural variety there. Just in one (albeit enormous) province, you can experience temperate coastal islands and rain forests, frozen rugged north, mountains high and so stunning they bring tears to your eyes, trees that stretch as far as the eye can possibly see and astoundingly turquoise lakes. While in the south, a hot, dry, sunny, valley region called the Okanagan. Fruit and, more recently, wine are the main agricultural outputs of this region.
This is Heidi Noble and Michael Dinn's story of the farm they bought there in 2002 - 5 acres, 1200 fruit trees and a 280-square-metre country house. It is the story of how it became their home, their farm, their cooking school and their winery, told through a series of menus from the dinners they served there over the years, in their orchard.
The Orchard Dinners were served outdoors at the farm between July 2003 and September 2005, against a spectacular mountain landscape backdrop, on a table set formally with fine linens, glassware and cutlery. With season and market availability driving the menus, they showcased the local bounty and the region's boutique wines. These lavish, but unfussy, multi-course menus, with alluring titles such as A Dinner in Honor of a Change in the Seasons and A Dinner to Celebrate the Heat of Summer are detailed in the first part of the book.
The influences behind the menus and the magical atmosphere of the dinners are captured in Heidi's descriptions. The weather: "the heat of that weekend lifted the smells of pine needles and wild sage that the Okanagan is famous for". How and why she planned the dishes: "the yellow tomatoes were ready, so for the Orchard Dinner that night I decided to make my favorite summer soup - an exercise in simplicity, containing just yellow tomatoes, salt and rice wine vinegar". What she found for sale that week and where the ingredients came from: "fresh honeycomb that the Similkameen Apiary had begun to sell at the market". Why the wines were chosen: "that night our menu featured morels in every course and wine pairing particular to mushrooms - lots of pinot noir and gamay amassed from that day's late-afternoon wine touring".
The drive to showcase produce from the Okanagan, British Columbia and Canada is taken further in the second section of the book where Heidi pays homage to her local producers and suppliers - "the true stars of the show". As Heidi describes, "nothing made me happier than handing over cash directly to the person who had grown the food" and the coffee roasters, cheese makers, ale brewers, fruit and vegetable farmers, honey producers, lavender growers, winemakers and bakers of the region, all sustainable producers, are individually celebrated. I too love knowing where my food has come from and this book indulges this desire completely. The final part of the book details recipes for the various dishes in the menus, valuable technique advice, and recommended British Columbian and international wine pairings.
"Eating is an agricultural act", Wendell Berry.
The importance of wine as a regional food product, as a product of the terroir, is a key influence in this cookbook. A government subsidised grape-pull scheme in the 1980s saw grape growers replant their vineyards with high-quality, aromatic, European varietals such as Reisling, Gewürztraminger and Pinot Blanc, which thrive in the remarkable micro-climate of the area with its dry desert heat. The region currently boasts over 100 small wineries - Joie farm now included - making wines that have evolved together with the cuisine into natural partners born of the land. Heidi and Michael's professional backgrounds in the B.C. wine industry can be seen in the detailed wine pairings on the Orchard Menus and the recommended accompaniments given with many of the recipes.
A further, extremely interesting, element of the book is the discussion of Canadian, specifically Okanagan, cuisine. Sinclair Philip, leader of Slow Food Canada, describes the current state of modern Okanagan food in the foreword. Unlike European regional cuisines, with their slowly evolved collections of traditional dishes stemming from peasant agrarian societies, British Columbia went straight from hunter-gatherer to globalised industrial cuisine with no regional style based on a sense of history, place and community. Hoping to develop and move on from this, Heidi & Michael envisage a new Okanagan regional cuisine - one based on the natural bounty, agriculture and local producers of the area - defining regional cuisine instead as "the food preparation of a specific place at a specific moment in time". I have great sympathy for this cultural ideology. Culture is so often defined as 'what people did in the past' rather than 'what people are doing now', when the present - the lived realities of people's lives - is my only true definition of culture.
Lastly British Columbia - the most enchanting place I have ever been in my life - lends its jaw-dropping scenery to the book. Think moody, grey skies seen through a frame of apple trees or the setting sun glimpsed over diners' shoulders. The wonderful Joie orchard and winery also looks ravishing, with its rows of apple trees overlooking the magnificent Naramata lake framed by mountains in the distance. And the ultimate aspirational shot - a gorgeous, well-equipped, outdoor kitchen looking out over a breath-taking mountain parorama and a clear, deep blue sky with the odd cloud as artistic flourish.
This is a book for those of us that dream of owning their own farm producing top-quality food. Of feeding, and teaching others how to feed people seasonal local food bursting with colour and life. Of that outdoor kitchen overlooking the mountains. Of developing, as Heidi did, “as a cook, a gardener, a teacher, and a host . . . as a lover of food and facilitator of the joy that good food and wine provide".
"May these recipes inspire you and may your local market be
your true guide when you cook".