In Pemberton, spuds—and vodka—taste fine

At North Arm Farms, it’s U-pick or loll in the fields, while over at Pemberton Distillery, spirits are also high

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      Oh, the temptation! If you head to Pemberton’s North Arm Farm intending to pick your own produce, you might end up kicking back on the bistro’s patio instead. When I visited in April, the setting was so bucolic that I just wanted to plop myself down in the middle of the fields and take it all in. Now that the farm has opened a new bistro—facing onto the fields and backed by the rugged peaks of Mount Currie—that urge to linger over a drink would be irresistible.

      Although Pemberton may not immediately spring to mind as a destination for culinary tourism, it should. The Pemberton potatoes found on menus around Vancouver and Whistler only hint at the valley’s agricultural bounty. And while it can’t compete with the Okanagan for wine tasting, you can visit a distillery to see how potato vodka is made. Plus, the scenery is so ridiculously beautiful that you’ll wonder why you’ve never motored the extra 20 minutes north of Whistler before.

      I started my culinary exploration at North Arm Farms, a 60-acre organic farm that grows a long list of edibles: beans, corn, sunchokes, burdock, salsify, and purple carrots, to name a few. During the summer, it opens up its fields to the public daily. You can download a map from the Northfarm website that shows what grows where and then wander at will. The farm also offers U-pick of what’s in season: for example, raspberries in July, and sweet corn and blueberries in August.

      North Arm may be a working farm, but it’s got the field-to-fork concept down. A popular restaurant in town called the Pony has just relocated its catering and baking operations to a kitchen on the property. Using on-site produce, the chefs make sandwiches, salads, and more for the bistro, and sell jams, ketchups, and baked goods in the farm shop. You can also buy fresh fruits and veggies to take home if you don’t get around to picking them yourself.

      The farm supplies its produce to restaurants such as the Top Table Group, which includes Araxi in Whistler. Araxi chef James Walt is scheduled to cook at the farm on July 9 for Outstanding in the Field, an annual high-end event that brings diners together for a feast at a long linen-draped table set on the farmland. Walt will also head up the Araxi long-table summer series, a similar concept that features a farm tour followed by a four-course, wine-paired meal at North Arm. (Dinners will take place July 2 and 30, August 27, and September 11; for info and reservations, email North Arm also participates in Slow Food Cycle Sunday, which takes place this year on August 21.

      Although North Arm does grow potatoes, that’s not its mainstay, unlike other farms in spud valley. Owner Jordan Sturdy, who also happens to be the mayor of Pemberton, explained that the area specializes in seed potatoes—that is, potatoes cultivated to be planted elsewhere by other farmers. “Seventy percent of the gross receipts of agriculture in Pemberton are potato-based,” he told me on a tour of the property. But in the last two decades, economic factors have made growing seed potatoes more challenging, and there’s been a rise in organic potato farming as a result.

      Falling potato prices inspired young entrepreneur Tyler Schramm to open Pemberton Distillery, located 10 minutes by car from North Arm Farms. Visitors are welcome, and Schramm offers tours to explain how he makes his potato vodka, as well as tastings of his award-winning products. (Tours cost $5 per person, last 25 to 45 minutes, and run hourly Friday through Sunday until September, or by appointment; see the Pemberton distillery website.

      On the tour, Schramm told me that the idea for the place came to him at his brother’s Pemberton farm about 10 years ago, as he “was staring out at a potato field and dreaming about what I could do with it”. A fan of Polish potato vodka, he headed to Edinburgh, Scotland, to complete a master’s degree in brewing and distilling. In the land of scotch whisky, he “had to put up with quite a bit of heckling from professors because they couldn’t understand why I wanted to make a vodka.”

      Schramm built the microdistillery with the help of his brothers and opened it in 2005. He produced his first vodka in 2009, and last year it won double gold and spirit of the year medals at the 2010 World Spirits Awards in Austria. The artisanal operation is a true family effort: Schramm runs it with his wife, Lórien, and they recruit their immediate family to hand-bottle the approximately 700 bottles per month.

      Good ingredients shape the end product. By “dumb luck”, said Schramm, the distillery’s tap water is pulled directly from the Birkenhead River. Supplied by the adjacent Mount Currie Nation reserve, it’s pure and untreated, with no chlorine and virtually no mineral content. The distillery uses B-grade “out-of-size and out-of-shape” organic potatoes from Pemberton’s Across the Creek organics. Schramm went through 90 metric tonnes last year, as it takes nearly seven kilograms of potatoes to produce one 750-millilitre bottle of vodka.

      As we walked around the shiny copper stills in which the small batches are produced, I was surprised to learn that most vodkas aren’t made out of potatoes. According to Schramm, there are only about 14 potato vodkas in the world. Because potatoes are more perishable, corn is usually the main ingredient. “A good potato vodka is creamier, silkier, and has more flavour than a grain vodka,” he said. “A grain vodka is more sharp.” And while most standard brands are designed to be neutral for mixing, his product is more fragrant and complex, and meant to be sipped like a scotch.

      At the end of the tour, we tried it for ourselves, along with Schramm’s just-released first batch of gin (a whisky is in the works for 2013). Using the same spirit base as the vodka, the gin has added herbs and botanicals like juniper, coriander, star anise, and orange peel. While most gins are fairly mild, Schramm’s is a deliciously unique medium-dry style with a stronger juniper flavour.

      I was excited to find organic vanilla for sale in the tasting room, too. Lórien explained that Schramm makes it by macerating organic vanilla beans from Costa Rica in the same spirit base. Housemade organic Ceylon cinnamon, espresso, lemon, and orange extracts are also available.

      Who would have thought you could find artisanal extracts in Pemberton? Just goes to show that there’s more to Pemberton than potatoes—even as the town stays true to its roots.



      Daniel Williamson

      Jun 30, 2011 at 8:32pm

      I did fish and wildlife habitat protection in the area when the BC government did care about the environment. This was and is a wonderful area.

      Take the round trip--the locals will tell you what I mean. You'll never do a better trip in your life.