OOOysterfest 2013 – Celebrating Oysters and Wine in the Okanagan

Old Man Winter arrived in November and by April he was still hanging on like an unwanted guest. After six months of living in thermal underwear, I needed a sunny deck –  preferably one with a bottle of wine on it, not one covered with snow.

April 2013
Alberta – April 2013

What I was really looking for was an excuse to run away to the Okanagan. As luck would have it, that excuse arrived in the form of an email media release about OOOysterfest, a wine and oyster festival about to take place in Oliver and Osoyoos, BC. I watched the snowflakes fall, and hit the reply button.

I’ve been visiting the Okanagan since I was a wee tyke, but I’m embarrassed to say I have never ventured further south than Penticton. Osoyoos, in my mind, has always meant desert and sagebrush and the last resort before the American border – a world away from the bustle and familiarity of Kelowna I had become comfortable with. I had no idea of what I might be missing in this beautiful area less than an hour’s drive from Penticton.

There’s desert, alright – the most northerly tip of the Sonoma dessert, in fact. There are even rattle snakes (not that I saw any). There’s a lake (Canada’s warmest), but you won’t find oysters in those waters, and the south Okanagan is a 600+ kilometre stone’s throw away from the ocean. What, pray tell, is an oyster festival doing in the desert?

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Overlooking Oliver and Osoyoos, BC

Two years ago, Claire Sear, Sales Manager at the Walnut Beach Resort in Osoyoos, had an idea: she envisioned a festival that centred around sustainable oysters from farmers and guilds of Canada’s west coast paired with Okanagan wine. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Claire, you will find a bright-eyed young woman with undying energy, and a passion for the area she is fortunate to call home. This diminutive dynamo presented her plan to the people, and the people rallied. The first Oliver/Osoyoos oyster and wine festival (OOOysterfest 2012) was a success, and there was no way I was going to miss its second running.

Now, there’s a very good chance that Claire isn’t as calm on the inside as she appears on the outside because I can’t imagine the coordination it takes to put together an event such as this, but from an attendee’s viewpoint, the event was flawless. The food and wine were incredible, but so were the people – people in direct competition with each other in the food and wine industry. They promoted each other’s products, they came together for a common cause; they helped, they scurried and they probably worked too many overtime hours. They were kind, hospitable, and generous, not to mention smiling all the time. But then, it’s the Okanagan, a place where happiness flourishes under expansive vistas of vineyards, lakes and mountains, and long days of sunshine and fresh air.

Or it could be because of the wine.

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The stretch of valley from Okanagan Falls to Osoyoos is home to 46 wineries, with another 12 wineries in the neighbouring Similkameen Valley (a short drive west of Osoyoos).

The spanky Walnut Beach Resortwas the host venue and my home for five days. Beautiful inside and out, the resort sits on the east side of Osoyoos Lake which means lakeside rooms face the west and offer gorgeous views of the area.

Morning view from balcony
Morning view from balcony

Walnut Beach Resort also has a private beach, complete with palapas and silky sand. It is the only licensed private beach on Osoyoos Lake.

Private Beach at Walnut Beach Resort
Private Beach at Walnut Beach Resort

That’s what I woke up to, and that’s what I came home to. But what happened in between is what I want to talk about – the actual OOOysterfest.

The first of the events took place at Miradoro restaurant at Tinhorn Creek Winery. The restaurant is a partnership between Tinhorn Creek and Manuel Ferreira, owner of Le Gavroche in Vancouver. Chef Jeff Van Geest prepared dishes celebrating the oyster at a long table dinner.

Long table dinner at Miradoro
Long table dinner at Miradoro

Imagine award-winning wines, oysters fresh from Canada’s Gulf Islands served at sunset in a world-class restaurant. That was opening night.

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Marina’s Top Drawer, and Beach Angel Oysters on the half shell, provided by Codfather’s of Kelowna
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Grilled speck-wrapped oysters with nettle veloute

I was stunned by the absolute beauty of everything. When I mentioned to Kenn Oldfield, chairman of the winery, that this was my first time south of Penticton, his reply was simple:  “What took you so long?”

Yes, regrets – I’ve had a few (cue Frank), and not visiting this area of the valley until now is certainly one of them.

The next day we headed to a midday oyster event at Medici’s Gelateria in Oliver. The gelateria is housed in an old church and serves some of the best gelato I’ve tasted this side of Italy. Jon and Anne-Marie Crofts from Codfather’s were shucking like there was no tomorrow. So, when you have some oyster shucking going on at a gelateria, you know the inevitable outcome is going to be oyster gelato, right?

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Oysters Rockefeller Gelato

The gelato was rich and creamy, and had the flavour of (no surprise) cold, silky, ice-creamy oysters Rockefeller. Maybe not for everyone, but when in Rome (or at an oyster event in a church-cum-gelateria in the desert), one must try all things bi-valvian. Even oyster gelato.

In the evening, we congregated at Hester Creek’s Terrafina for an “Under the Tuscan Sea” soiree. This event featured thin-crust pizzas paired with the best of the Okanagan’s bubbly from Blue Mountain, Stoneboat, 8th Generation, Haywire and Hester Creek‘s new Rosé.  There is one thing you should know about the sparkling wines coming out of the Okanagan: they are stellar, as in absolutely magical – so magical that I fell under a spell of some sort (read: too much bubbly) and can only find one picture of the event:

Nothing left but the caps...
Nothing left but the caps…

On Friday, April 19, a panel of judges sampled and selected winning wines in an innaugural Canadian Oyster Wine Pairing Competition. Over 80  wines from across Canada were entered. To give you an idea of just how good wines are from British Columbia, here’s a fact:  In 2011, BC wineries won over 2,000 medals in national and international competitions. That’s serious stuff.

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The judging panel was comprised of heavyweights in the BC wine industry: Rhys Pender, MW and owner of www.wineplus.ca; Mark Filatow, Sommelier and award-winning Chef www.waterfrontrestaurant.ca; Cassandra Anderton, food and wine writer and publisher of www.goodlifevancouver.com; Brad Cooper, Okanagan winemaker and owner of Black Cloud Winery, and Audrey Surrao, WSET certified and co-owner of Raudz Regional Table. For a list of winners, check out Good Life Vancouver for details of the competition.

The South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce hosted an Oyster Brew Party at Spirit Ridge on Friday night. The brews consisted of local craft beer, cider and wine. The shuckers kept shucking, the libations kept flowing, and the band played on and on.

SOCC Oyster Brew Party
SOCC Oyster Brew Party
Tuscan Calzone by Chef Natasha Schooten of Hester Creek
Tuscan Calzone by Chef Natasha Schooten of Hester Creek
Getting to taste fantastic Oliver, BC wines from Platinum Bench
Getting to taste fantastic Oliver, BC wines from Platinum Bench

The sun came out in full force on Saturday during the Art of the Oyster signature event held poolside at the Walnut Beach Resort. More wine, more oysters, more Okanagan awesomeness.

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Oysterman Brent Petkau serving up some sexy Royal Courtesans from Cortes Island
Oysterman Brent Petkau serving up some sexy Royal Courtesans from Cortes Island

Oysters, oysters everywhere, and glorious drops of drink. Each table featured oysters served in the shell and out. Raw, poached, smoked and fried, each little delectable gem was paired with an Okanagan wine.

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Nk'Mip's Icewine Poached Oyster
Nk’Mip’s Icewine Poached Oyster
Patisserie de Vallee's Okeover Oyster & Sole Boudin Blanc Dumplings with Bacon Broth
Patisserie de Vallee’s Okeover Oyster & Sole Boudin Blanc Dumplings with Bacon Broth

Oysters at every turn…P1090126_Snapseed

 And wine at every table…

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Moon Curser’s Stunning Viognier

A little more wine was needed at Covert Farms’ station where Derek Uhlemann was frying up some fresh oysters, prairie style.  That’s right folks, fresh off the four-legged beast and into the pan. These little nuggets had the consistency of veal cutlets and tasted very similar. In fact, with a healthy glug of wine, you barely could tell what you were eating. A real healthy glug.

Derek Uhlemann of Covert Farms
Derek Uhlemann of Covert Farms doing his best to explain what Prairie Oysters are.
What goes with fried Prairie Oysters? Covert Farms Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, of course.
What goes with fried Prairie Oysters? Covert Farms Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, of course.

The last evening of OOOysterfest gave attendees a choice of two events: an amateur “Suck and Shuck” competition hosted by Helen’s Seafood Cove and the Sage Pub in Osoyoos, or a cooking class and private dinner with Chef Natasha Schooten at Hester Creek Winery’s demonstration kitchen. A group of us opted for the private dinner at Hester Creek. Something wonderful happens when people get together over good food and wine….

Hester Creek's Cabernet Franc Rosé
Hester Creek’s Cabernet Franc Rosé
Chef Natasha Schooten
Chef Natasha Schooten

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Getting away to the south Okanagan was the perfect remedy to my winter blues. I can’t say enough about this incredible event, OOOysterfest, and how fantastic and generous the people are. I was spoiled rotten.

In fact, the only bad thing I have to say about my trip is that now whenever I enter a room, I expect someone to greet me with a glass of wine. Reality is a harsh mistress.

Huge praise for the OOOysterfest organizers, sponsors and helpers: the Walnut Beach Resort, the wineries, the oyster suppliers and farmers (Codfathers, Effingham, Outlandish, Brent “The Oysterman” Petkau, and Penticton’s Buy the Sea Market), and those who contributed their time and their product to make this an event I look forward to returning to. I’m not going to wait a full year though. September in the south Okanagan is lovely, from what I hear.

If you haven’t visited the south Okanagan…what are you waiting for?