Perhaps there is more to savour than just wine tasting?
This is a shocking statement on a wine blog but it’s true. While I’ve written about other tasting experiences involving things like honey before, whenever I take a trip anywhere I’ve always taken a lot of pleasure from trying local things: cool restaurants, unique stores, and of course wineries. Challenging my taste buds with things that aren’t wine is good because I like to think that it makes me better at tasting wine. It also makes be appreciate wine even more because it reminds me that when all is said and done, wine is still the most complex, nuanced, varied, and debate-inducing thing that humans can consume. However, tasting new things is also just fun.
I recently went on a family trip to explore the North Okanagan, staying 4 days in Vernon, BC. After seven and a half years living in the south, it’s almost shocking that I’ve only managed to come here once before. Like most places in the Okanagan though, this place is a destination in and of itself, meaning that you have actually want to come here in order to appreciate it. While I have travelled through Vernon in 2009 on my way home from a drive across Canada, I never got a chance to stop and try out some local shops and restaurants on that trip. And I haven’t really had a reason to go back since then. There are no wineries in the immediate Vernon area and little in the way of wine culture at most of the restaurants that I was able to visit (with one notable exception – see below).
We really lucked out after we arrived. Within 5 hours we had managed to find two amazing places to challenge our taste buds.
Olive Us is an “olive oil and vinegar tasting room” on 30th Avenue in downtown Vernon. My wife discovered it listed on the Tourism Vernon website as we were planning the trip. We knew we wanted to get there at some point but with our kids in tow, making fast plans was not something that we could count on. However, it happened to be close to where we’d parked so we stopped in.
Refreshingly, the kids were welcomed and had a small chalkboard-painted fun room and games ready for them. My wife and I were told about the amazing selection of olive oils (fused and infused) and vinegars (white and dark or balsamic), shown the sampling spoons, and then let loose in the store to freely taste both. It was a refreshing experience and challenging at the same time. I’m used to explaining bizarre complexities of wine to people and here I was on the other side learning about the bizarre complexities of olive oils and balsamic vinegars. It was an informative and humbling at the same time. There is so much to know about it and I wanted to remember as much of it as I could.
Thankfully, there was no quiz afterwards. Spoon in hand, I tasted my way through an amazing assortment of olive oils infused with ingredients like basil, toasted almond, and tuscan herbs. One of my favourites was an oil that was fused with mandarin oranges. Fused oils, I learned that day, are created by co-pressing flavouring ingredients with the olives, in this case whole mandarin oranges, so that the flavours develop and integrate together right from the beginning. It’s hard to describe the difference between fused and infused but if I had to try, I’d say that the fused flavours are blurred together; they aren’t two distinct flavours that are joined (like infusions) but are rather a unique flavour of its own that has elements of both. I found it harder to pick out the distinct elements of the fused oils. The only exception was the distinctive tang of the mandarin rind that floated over the whole experience for that particular oil.
The vinegars were equally interesting. There were white vinegar infusions including coconut, peach, and cranberry pear. Dark vinegars had a list of slightly more robust infusion flavours but were equally well balanced, something that I noticed with all of the products in the store that I was able to sample. The Strawberry balsamic got my attention right away (I love spinach salad) and the flavour was pristine. The dark chocolate balsamic was unbelievable, rich as would be expected but not cloyingly so.
Interestingly, they also had the base balsamic (not infused) available for tasting, as well as the base olive oil. I think that this is the strongest testament to the high quality of their products. They are not just simply flavouring sub-standard oils and vinegars so they can synthetically increase its value (or “polishing a turd” as a winery manager I used to work with once called it, referring to wines that had been unduly processed and sold for a much higher price). These are quality products from the get-go and you can buy them in their base elements if you want. They are delicious.
The big kicker for me though was the single-variety olive oils – an amazing opportunity to try unblended oils to find out what the differences are between the varieties. This is commonplace in the wine world and occasionally you can find specialty apple juices in the Okanagan that are made from a single variety of apples, but otherwise this is a rare opportunity. Olive varieties can vary enormously based on polyphenol content (just like red wines) and other elements that make each one unique.
Since Vernon is not very convenient for me to just go and pick up another bottle of olive oil when my stock runs out, this will really only be a special trip for me. But for you residents of the North Okanagan, and maybe even Kelowna, this place is an absolute gem to frequent. Even occasional purchases here will result in a small collection of amazing products that will enhance any special dinner.
Speaking of a special dinner – We happened upon a small bistro called Tita’s Italian Bistro on 41st Avenue, just off Highway 97. Even the parking lot was cosy. (The parking spaces were perfect for Italian sports cars. Less so for Toyota minivans.) We walked inside and were welcomed like long-lost family. Just getting this far was a victory for my wife and I as our kids are solidly in that picky-eater phase. Once we sat down and saw the menu, things didn’t pick up for them since there was a lot of Italian words that they didn’t recognize. With help from our server and a little bribing with Italian sodas, we found two dishes that the kids would enjoy.
**I should interrupt this ‘restaurant review’ by pointing out that I don’t think I’ve ever done a restaurant review on this site at all, nor am I seeking to make this a regular feature. While I will be the first to point out that absolutely nothing qualifies me to judge restaurants, food, and / or service quality, this place was probably the best dining experience I’ve ever had with my whole family and for that reason alone, I will shout about Tita’s as loud as I can and plan my next trip to Vernon based on their business hours.**
My wife had the special of the day while I had the Filletto di Maiale Pisa. Before the kids had time to complain about anything, the sodas were on the table and there was warm focaccia and dishes of olive oil and balsamic. Soon after that, two unexpected salads with house made balsamic reduction dressing was placed in front of my wife and I. Once the salads were done, the main showed up shortly after that and they were amazing.
So amazing in fact that my daughter proclaimed that her Fettuccini Alfredo was the best pasta that she’d ever had. She then ate 3/4 of a small adult portion of it, which is far more than the 3, possibly 4, noodles that she’ll eat at home before giving up. (I like to think that this says more about the quality of Tita’s pasta dishes than it does about our home cooking but only she knows for sure.) My son, though being less adventurous in his choice of main, was also enthusiastic about his Spaghetti Bolognese.
As for wine, Tita’s had a small but varied list of quality wines at many price points, including Larch Hills in Salmon Arm. The wines were priced fairly and nothing seemed out of place for the style of cuisine. It was also not populated only by wines from one particular corporation or supplier (e.g. Peller, Constellation, or Mission Hill) that I’ve seen often at restaurants. (Maybe I’ll write more on that subject in another post…)
Essentially, Tita’s over-delivered. We expected nothing more than a plate of food each. Instead we were treated to amazing bread, amazing salads, and amazing food. Based on that, we quickly decided to stay for dessert and guess what? It was amazing as well – Tiramisu for my wife, limoncello for me. I have no photos because I was too busy actually tasting the food and enjoying the experience and I’m glad I did because this kind of thing can’t be tweeted. (I’m not into instagramming my food although I’ve been known to tweet photos of empty plates and pizza boxes.)
So far, it was two amazing tasting experiences in one day and all within hours of arriving in Vernon. This was shaping up to be a great trip.
Part 2 will be coming soon…