11 days to go - who wants to cook anyway?
Today I made it to three Canmore Uncorked partners and was sensing a common theme – the modern consumer is looking for good, healthy meals, but doesn’t want (or more likely doesn’t have time) to cook. So let me introduce some solutions…
A BEAUTIFUL VALLEY
First up was a trip to Valbella Gourmet Foods, a business that has evolved over 39 years from being a lone butcher working in 1,000 sq. ft to become a major production facility, delicatessen and café employing 35-40 staff, that ships high-quality sausages, hams and ready-made meals across the province. All of this without ever losing its roots as a family business
Valbella means ‘beautiful valley’ in the Romansch language of founder Walter von Rotz’ native Switzerland; a home he has stayed very connected to as the business has grown through the years. There are always 2-3 Swiss butchers on working visas as part of the Valbella staff, and Walter himself is an active member of the Jodlerklub Heimattreu – a Calgary-based yodel club with 25-30 members who practice, sing and tour back to Switzerland. That, by the way, was not a sentence I ever thought I would write, but found truly fascinating and you can read more on their site (don’t miss Jodelfest in Brig, Switzerland this June!).
Walter and his wife Leonie have passed operation of Valbella to son Jeff and daughter Chantal, who maintain the company culture and proudly speak of its history – acutely aware of the work Walter put in to build the business, which included starting a knife-sharpening business that allowed him to get into kitchens in restaurants all over Banff and get his meat products known. Genius!
Now Valbella occupies 40,000 sq. ft in Canmore’s Elk Run area, an expanse that is not given away by the cozy little deli and café that is seen by the public. The deli, as Chantal describes, is the market research area – allowing them to try new products and get first-hand feedback. Fine meat products have always been the biggest part of what Valbella does, shipping 15 tons each week to Calgary alone, and new recipes including sausages are always being developed by the highly-engaged staff members. The von Rotz family encourage creativity, and will always be there for the making and tasting of the first batch to ensure the quality of the brand is maintained.
The family has branched out into ready-made meals – as Chantal says, no-one seems to have time to cook any more, and Valbella can help fill that void by offering restaurant-quality food that isn’t full of additives and can be heated and served at home, and Uncorked this year will showcase some of this.
Ever-present participants in Canmore Uncorked, Valbella will this year offer a $10 special that includes a Wild Boar & Porcini Mushroom salami, and a 750ml package of frozen soup – either maple butternut or Swiss barley (which includes traditional Swiss bundnerfleisch). In addition they will offer another on-site special at $30 which includes a wild boar salami with pine nuts and truffle oil, plus a package of frozen butter chicken and a package of heat-and-serve meatballs.
I was served by Felix, one of Valbella’s contingent of Swiss staff who has now lived half of his life in the Bow Valley and will be known to locals as the chef in the Valbella Food Truck. Felix laid out the wild board and pine nut salami, a soup (maple butternut soup), and the butter chicken. I had expected the salami, which was excellent as always, but the other two dishes were a very pleasant introduction to Valbella’s heat-and-serve foods – the soup has a very distinctive maple flavor, and the butter chicken is mild, creamy and full of flavor.
Make sure you swing by Valbella during Uncorked, and also look out for exciting changes to the café for the summer – including a patio and much more use of the food truck.
Next up was An Edible Life, just out of the town centre on Kananaskis Way between Cornerstone Theatre and the Coast Hotel. Owner Carole Beaton prepares ready-to-go meals (because, as she says, no-one seems to have time to cook any more) that are mostly gluten free, often vegan, and always healthy and tasty. Past readers of this blog know that I try (often unsuccessfully) to avoid sugar and desserts wherever possible, and I therefore love visiting Carole because I figure if she serves it then it must be healthy, right? Right?
Carole’s $5 uncorked special gives you a choice between her chia donuts and her fruit chia parfait. The common link of course being chia – Salvia hispanica to be precise, which is a species of plant in the mint family, and is a recognized superfood. The seeds are reputed to be good for the skin, the digestive tract, the heart, the metabolism, the bones and the teeth. They can hold 10+ times their weight in water and they naturally promotes weight loss. Which all sounds like the dietary equivalent of confession – your other dining sins are forgiven…
The Chia donuts are served with cashew cream, and all joking aside are a smoking deal. If you (like me and most other people) like to have a snack in the middle of the day these are low-in sugar, high in nutritional value, satisfyingly chewy, and fill you up. And they have just enough dark chocolate drizzled over the top to make them very tasty!
The parfait also well worth a try (parfait for breakfast, donuts for lunch?) and changes based on ingredients – today was a cherry chia parfait which consists of oats, natural yoghurt, chia, honey, vanilla and cherries, all of which is organic and locally sourced except the cherries and vanilla, for obvious climatic reasons. Again it is very tasty and sufficiently filling.
Ever the marketer, Carole also served me a couple of her chocolate squares with almond crust and strawberry compote which “just happened to be lying around”. Now these are not a festival special, but I strongly advise you get some when you are there – the topping is a chocolate & coconut milk ganache which is very like a truffle – and because Carole is serving it then it must be healthy, right? Right?
Carole has not always been a cook – in fact she used to work in construction as a tiler – and her commitment to healthy food is very personal as you can read on her website. She gets her inspiration from vegan cookbooks and a group of girlfriends who like to try recipes and give advice – back-seat driving for the culinary world by the sound of it. Carole loves her customers above all else in the business, especially the chance to talk to them – a big shift from the lonely world of tiling – and she knows that Canmore is a perfect place to cater to busy and active people who are often dairy-free or gluten-free. As I am talking a regular walks in and orders heat-and-serve lasagna. “Not cooking tonight?” asks Carole. “No time”, is the response, “and I just fancy something healthy".
THE FRIENDLIEST-SOUNDING HERB…
Last up for the day was Sage Bistro & Wine Lounge, where owner Todd Kunst welcomes me and escorts me upstairs to the wine lounge which has the feel of a bright and airy log cabin. And of course big windows that afford stunning views in three directions. The Kunst family has owned the business since 1989, back when it was called The Kabin. I asked Todd how he got into the industry, to which he simply replied “child labour”.
I love the wine lounge – it has a way of sucking me in for hours at a time with its tapas-style plates and huge selection of well-stored wines (180 labels and counting). Between Christmas and New Year my wife and I got an early start there with some visiting friends, arriving at 6pm so that we could do our own impromptu progressive dinner tour and show off as many restaurants as possible. Sage politely asked us to leave around midnight…
Sage is always a big supporter of the festival, always doing a $44 menu and participating in the progressive dinners and Big Brunch. This year’s offering starts with a choice between a simple green salad and a baked brie – which comes with a spiced pear chutney that my wife (who once again saw the opportunity to come and share my plate) described as tasting “like Christmas”. For me is was a throwback to my mum’s cider orchard in the UK that provides fruit for lots of wonderful chutneys. Either way, it was a hit.
The main course is a choice between Baby Back Ribs, a B.C Salmon Fillet, a Seasonal Risotto or the Confit of Cornish Hen. Now I have always made the disclaimer when writing this blog that I am not a food critic and there are many things I don’t know in the culinary world – and today I learned what a confit is (having always believed it was simply a preserve like a pate). Confit actually means cooking in grease at a low temperature for a long period, and this Cornish hen (a pleasant change from chicken) was slow cooked in duck fat overnight at 200F. For the record the meat can be stored in the fat for months if sealed correctly, so I wasn’t completely wrong. The hen was great – especially the skin and outer layer of meat, but the best part of the dish was the roast fingerling potatoes served on a base of creamy mushroom and fennel sauce, which was plate-lickingly good (OK don’t judge me; I was early and there was no-one else there!).
To finish off there is a choice between a Callebaut Chocolate Mousse and a Tiramisu. So much for no desserts, and I couldn’t even claim the Carole rule… The Tiramisu was awesome – an individual serving laced with cognac espresso and Fiasco Gelato. And the garnish still has my OCD brain puzzled – geometrically sliced apples (how do they do that!!).
Like many Canmore restaurants Sage believes passionately in sourcing foods locally – nearly everything coming from Alberta and BC. The upstairs wine bar is elegant but more casual, while the restaurant downstairs is more classical. And as for the name? Todd smiles and says “there really isn’t a good story. I was driving back from Edmonton and brainstormed with a friend. We went through all the herbs and figured Sage sounded the friendliest”.
Good enough for me!
Sage Bistro & Wine Lounge
Valbella Gourmet Foods
An Edible Life