Okanagan Valley BC: Wine and Cheese Country

Okanagan Valley British Columbia The Okanagan Valley is a gorgeous area of Central British Columbia. Often termed "Canada's Playground," it's the only place in Canada where the weather is consistently hot and dry and the temperatures get really really warm in the summer (especially in the southernmost regions of the valley around Osoyoos). Pair the weather with copious mountains, gorgeous lakes and 90+ wineries and you've got a recipe for a great vacation destination whether or not you're Canadian. But in addition to all of those great qualities, the Okanagan Valley boasts a pocket of exceptional artisan cheesemakers as well. Let's review.

Start your tour by visiting the southernmost cheesemaker, Gitta Sutherland at Poplar Grove in Penticton. Her fantastic Tiger Blue was recently featured in the Globe and Mail's biweekly cheese column. Poplar Grove was originally founded as an offshoot of Poplar Grove Winery....makes me wonder why more people haven't thought of pairing wine and cheese - literally. Moving northward to Kelowna, there's Carmelis (pronounced Car-meleeze) Goat Cheeses located on a gorgeous site in the hills overlooking Okanagan Lake. Ofri and Ofer Barmor are making a spectacular array of 20+ different goat's milk cheeses; their soft-ripened creations are a feast for the eyes and the palate. Recently, they started making a Goat Gruyere in giant Old-World style wheels; they also make the Northwest's only goat's milk blue, the Goatgonzola (more about that later).

As you move farther north in the valley, there are plenty more cheesemaking adventures to be had. First up as the crow flies is The Village Cheese Co. in Armstrong. Designed as a tourist destination (kind of Farrell's-meets-Tillamook), The Village offers lunches, ice cream and windows on the cheesemaking operation, all for your enjoyment...but these folks are no slouches in the cheese department. In 2000, their cheddar was named Reserve Grand Champion at the British Empire Cheese Show. Head a bit east toward Lumby and you'll find BC's newest cheesemaker, Triple Island Farm. Owners the Tuijtel family are Dutch immigrants who were just licensed to make cheese in March of this year. They're already selling out of their creamy Gouda cheeses.

Gort's Gouda Cheese FarmHead farther north toward Salmon Arm, BC, in the heart of the Shushwap, another hour or so to the northwest. Here you'll have the opportunity to visit BC's first small artisan cheesemaker, Gort's Gouda. Though pioneer Arie Gort sold the operation recently, Kathy and Gary Wikkerink are continuing the tradition of producing great Gouda from this gorgeous valley. Also located in Salmon Arm, though not open to visitors, is Happy Days Goat Dairy, where lots of Okanagan brand fresh chevre, goat's milk yogurt and other products are produced. Happy Days also has a goat's milk bottling facility and retail shop in Chilliwack, near Vancouver - see the website for more information.

Keep going past Salmon Arm on the Trans-Canada Highway to the village of Chase and you'll run into Mountain Meadow Sheep Dairy, BC's only exclusively sheep's milk cheesemaker. Mountain Meadow is also under new ownership, having been purchased from Hani and Theres Gasser in 2006 by a Korean corporation; their products are now primarily available at farmer's markets. Head back east on Highway 1 to Sicamous and you'll find D Dutchmen Dairy, another tourist stop that features dozens of ice cream flavors, bottled milk and cheese made on the premises. D Dutchmen is one the most elaborate cheese-related tourist destinations I've seen, featuring llamas, peacocks and exotic birds to boot. Most of D Dutchmen's cheeses are sold for food service but their cheddars (plain and flavored) are available for sale on site or in local markets.

So now perhaps you understand why I'm excited about this region's cheeses and cheesemaking. Unfortunately, those of us in the US need to travel to BC to sample most of the cheeses produced by these cheesemakers, since selling cheese across international borders (in either direction) introduces all sorts of complex import/export issues. Should you find yourself visiting Vancouver anytime soon, I highly recommend a stop by my favorite cheese shop, Les Amis du Fromage, which specializes in (among many other things) BC artisan cheesemakers. Or better yet, take a trip to the Okanagan Valley, where it's easy to lose yourself in wine and cheese.