Chickens relaxing at Helmer’s Organic Farm (Annemarie Dooling)
It’s Sunday, and the who’s who of a Canadian village is at Helmer’s Organic Farm. This open house features all of the little town’s best, from steaming pots of chili by the boys of Urban Digs Farm to jars of fresh honey, swarming with bees. A tent advertises Jennie Helmer’s bid for political office and gives locals the chance to talk to her about their issues. A farm dog runs out to greet shoppers while nearby children in rubber rain boots stomp through muddy puddles. A campfire crackles in the center of it all, heating chilly hands.
This is Pemberton, British Columbia, and it doesn’t get much more deliciously small town. Pemberton is about half an hour from Whistler, with Mount Currie standing tall in the background, topped with snow — a beautiful backdrop to the block-long downtown dotted with neighborhood staples like Mount Currie Coffee and Mile One Eating House. Tracks bisect the area, but the train doesn’t stop here anymore.
Yet despite its almost painful quaintness, Pemberton packs a hidden punch: Within these local farms, run by families and hardworking, unassuming couples, are the most delicious elements of the best meals of the grandest restaurants in Whistler. It’s a living dream come true for cuisine and wine lovers who want to meet the people behind their plates. The name of the game here is quality, a return to the slow food movement, and a time when your dinner had its own dinner outside of your kitchen window a day before you cooked it. It’s a place where the best meals are made in small batches in homey kitchens, and the carrots grow too tenderly to pluck from the ground with machines. This type of eating — traditional and local — is starting to trend in top restaurants across the U.S. and Canada. Everyone else is just now catching up to sleepy Pemberton, population 2,369.
Rootdown Organic Farm pigs (Rootdown Organic Farm/Facebook)
Rootdown Organic Farm is one of the main farms in Pemberton. They believe in preserving a natural ecosystem, which means raising pigs and chickens on the same grounds where vegetables are harvested. The owners, Simone MacIsaac and Sarah McMillan, know a thing or two about harvesting, having met at the University of British Columbia in the Sowing Seeds Apprenticeship program. Today, the farm supplies a long list of tasty natural crops, such as radishes, kale, and tomatoes, to Nita Lake Lodge, Araxi, and other top-quality restaurants with long wait lines in surrounding British Columbia.
Lorien Schramm at the Pemberton Distillery table at Helmer’s open house (Annemarie Dooling)
Nearby, there is the Pemberton Distillery, which walks the talk of keeping things local. Not only do the ingredients come from area farms such as Across the Creek Organics, but the purveyors have been known to stop by Rootdown and North Arms Farm with little treats: leftover potato mash (a byproduct of production) to feed to the growing piglets.
Master distiller Tyler Schramm studied abroad in Scotland while testing out recipes for various spirits, and then came home to start the distillery, building it with his two brothers in 2008. Since then, Schramm and his wife, Lorien, have gone on to create a sweet brandy made with whole, fresh apples from Riley Creek Farm and aged in oak casks; an organic gin with eight herbs and botanicals; and Kartoffelschnaps, a German potato-based specialty (inspired by a visitor to the town). You can visit the distillery, which is one of the most high-tech in the world, and take a 25-minute tour with a tasting for $6. Don’t leave without taking home their famous potato vodka, distilled by hand (it takes 17 hours!) and made with five varieties of local organic potatoes. It’s the star of the show, featured in a sold-out panel at Whistler’s 2014 Cornucopia food and wine festival, despite hundreds of distillers and vintners showcasing their best stuff.
Root vegetables are also big business in Pemberton. The certified organic veggies, such as carrots and beets, are putting this little village on the map with leaders in the farm-to-table movement in British Columbia by giving the big restaurants a sense of history and purpose with their meals, with a big emphasis on their potatoes: According to David MacKenzie, who owns the Pemberton Valley Lodge as well as leading up the town’s tourism efforts, 10 certified growers within city limits grow 30 different varieties.
Even if you haven’t visited any of Pemberton’s farms just yet, if you have dined in B.C., chances are you’ve sampled Pemberton’s best foods. Pemberton vegetables are main ingredients in many of the dishes that make up the menus at Whistler’s most popular restaurants. For instance, Alta Bistro, owned by locals and something of a cult favorite, supports small businesses such as Rootdown when they make their seasonal menu. As a return on investment, they send compost back to Rootdown for integration with the soil. (Alta Bistro is also known for its addictive elk tartare, made with local game and cocoa.) Any night of the week, you can see regulars in the intimate, art-filled dining room, sipping cocktails featuring Pemberton Distillery spirits.
A long-table dinner at North Arm Farm, where Araxi chef James Walt creates unique four-course meals using local ingredients. (Araxi)
Araxi, which sits smack in the middle of the main village of Whistler, is often the hottest table in town. Its menu is stocked with luxurious treats such as oysters, scallops, and caviar, as well as heartier dishes such as pan-roasted duck breast, saddle of rabbit, and a 6-ounce Canada Triple A beef tenderloin steak. But it’s the rack of lamb that shares a plate with Rootdown broccoli and baby beets, and Pemberton organic lettuce fills the restaurant’s salad bowls.
A walk away in Whistler’s Upper Village, chef Tory Martindale uses a host of Pemberton specialties to fill the menu at the Four Seasons Whistler’s signature restaurant, Sidecut. Organic produce and raw honey from Laughing Cow Organics and squash blossoms from Reggie’s Veggies (among other purveyors) are used in dishes such as grilled summer asparagus and raspberry salad. Pemberton Distillery also makes an appearance on the drinks menu, ensuring that everyone who stops in to this chic resort tries a little taste of local Canada.
Pemberton’s reach also stretches three hours away to Vancouver, where Cibo Trattoria chef Faizal Kassam uses Pemberton Meadows skirt steak. The cows raised by Pemberton Meadows live in herds on a pasture and are never given hormones or steroids.
These restaurants are not alone: There’s a definite trend among Vancouver and Whistler restaurateurs to source local meat and to get to know the land where the animals live before making the ultimate sacrifice.
But, of course, you don’t need seven courses to become acquainted with Pemberton’s charms. Book a night in any of the boutique hotels in Whistler or a spacious room at the Four Seasons. Rent a car and enjoy the gorgeous 30-minute drive, cruising past lakes and climbing up the sides of mountains, to get to quiet, green Pemberton. Grab a fair trade coffee or a cinnamon bun at Blackbird Bakery, and say hello to any of the friendly folks in town, who are proud of their work and more than happy to introduce you to their efforts before they arrive on your plate in Whistler.