Urban Forager

Chef Ned Bell, co-owner of the reimagined Naramata Inn. Right: Wild salmon with roasted chanterelle mushrooms, corn, corn puree and pickled mustard seeds, garnished with watercress brought over by a neighbour.

Based on the philosophy that a better world starts in one’s own community, Cittaslow, an arm of the Italian-based Slow Food movement, designated Naramata as an official Cittaslow, or Slow City, in 2010. Joining 206 sister communities around the world Cittaslow spotlights those places that celebrate a rich history and tradition, and that safeguard the production of unique foods and wines, attributes that contribute to their distinct character and make their communities stronger for their inhabitants.

Naramata, founded in 1907 by John Moore Robinson, is home to long-established orchards and vineyards, organic farmers and niche producers. One of Slow Food’s tenets is access to quality, flavoursome and healthy food. And residents, visitors — and passionate chefs — quickly realize that they’re surrounded by a richly abundant and delicious landscape in Naramata, and the Okanagan in general.

Naramata keeps the Slow Food tenets alive every year during their Naramata Slow Harvest Suppers. Drawing together farmers, winemakers and residents — known as Naramatians — it’s a way to celebrate the harvest, meet your neighbour, your farmer, winemaker and to give thanks.

Another anchor to this unique community is the historic Naramata Inn. Built by Robinson in 1908 as his family home, the 112-year-old property has gone through various incarnations including a boarding school, and many have stepped up to run it as an inn, with several restaurant concepts housed in the lower floor.

Like any successful garden, orchard or vineyard, nurturing and upkeep is a constant, and the two-storey Mission-style property with 12 guest rooms, kitchen and heritage grounds was in need of some “lipstick and love.”

Enter Paul Hollands and Maria Weisner, long-time summer residents, who dreamed of re-imagining the Inn. They approached Okanagan-born celebrated chef Ned Bell and his wife, PR professional Kate Colley, who dreamed of moving back to the area. Dreams quickly became reality for both couples when they took possession of the property this past February and set to work, opening their doors to guests in June.

Despite COVID-19, and an uncertain future, construction and the trades continued on, as did the two couples. Updated wiring, a new roof, walls and an immense forno oven were removed, and original wood flooring, doors, beams and antique furniture pieces were brought back to life, with period lighting re-purposed throughout.

“We’re not changing history,” explains Bell, who has moved to Naramata with his wife and two young sons, “just updating.” All guest rooms, with private veranda access, were updated with paint, new beds, crisp linens, luxe towels and amenities, such as Wi-Fi. Another iconic village tenant, the lone peacock, inspired the Inn’s logo adding to a sense of place.

As this re-imagined Naramata Inn is being dubbed, “a restaurant with rooms,” a key transformation is the kitchen, designed by Bell, and the adjacent repositioning of the dining room to the main floor, providing a seamless flow. The lower floor is now home to the pastry kitchen and a dining room for small to medium-sized events.

With 48 seats — under COVID distancing — the main dining room welcomes with modern furnishings, lots of natural light and views to the inn's veranda and grounds. On the main wall a gorgeous mural depicts stylized peacock feathers — a collaboration between business partner Weisner and local designer Marnie McLean — while another features a collection of vintage dinner plates, donated by a generous neighbour.

Another neighbour, seamstress and designer Diane Jensen of Shades of Linen, sewed the aprons, staff shirts, masks and restaurant linens. Overall, the community has given the chef and his team a warm welcome. Many growers show up at the kitchen door with ingredients from their gardens which Bell loves.

Dubbed “French-Naramatian cuisine,” the menu heralds the seasons and the community, and reflects chef Ned Bell's 30 years in the kitchen, and his deep connection to the region’s farmers, makers and foragers. “If I don’t know that farmer, fisher or grower,” notes Bell, “it’s not on my menu.” To really drive it home, with the exception of coffee, chocolate (thank God) and citrus, no ingredients are imported. “I have all the things I need at my fingertips,” says Bell. “You could never have that in Vancouver.”

After graduating from Vancouver’s Dubrulle French Culinary School in 1994, Bell apprenticed with chef Michel Jacob at Vancouver’s famed Le Crocodile and was mentored by Iron Chef Rob Feenie at Lumiere. Then followed two decades working in Toronto, Calgary, Kelowna and Vancouver where he led the Four Seasons Hotel to star billing as executive chef of Yew Seafood and Bar.

With a passion for healthy and sustainable ingredients, he became a nationally recognized champion of sustainable seafood.

He cycled across Canada founding Chefs for Oceans, an organization that raises awareness and advocates for responsible seafood choices, before becoming executive chef for Ocean Wise, where we met his current sous chefs Minette Lotz and Stacy Johnston.

Bell has gathered together a talented brigade both back and front of house, with polished and knowledgeable service throughout. And business has exceeded expectations since opening. Rooms at the Inn have been booked months in advance and reservations for lunch and dinner difficult to get on short notice.

Meals at the dinner hour begin with an amuse bouche, a little something from the kitchen to stimulate the appetite. Served on one of the donated vintage plates, a memorable taste was a slice of toasted brioche topped with Upper Bench Creamery’s Grey Baby cheese and local whisky-soaked sour cherries made in-house.

The salad course here is not just greens, but a fresh and verdant snapshot of the best from the Inn’s favourite Naramata farmers, simply tossed in an emulsion of herbs, or roasted hazelnuts and a Naramata apple cider vinaigrette.

The burger at lunch, comprised of local lamb and organic B.C. beef, is plump and juicy accompanied by aged Jerseyland organic cheddar, organic apricots and pickle-y sweet-and-sour summer squash, sandwiched between a housemade burger bun. It’s served with a side of fermented potato chips. An old technique utilized in a modern way, thinly sliced potatoes are soaked 48 to 72 hours in a salt brine, then drained and fried. The result is a better chip, crunchy and a little tangy.

Another highlight was potato gnocchi — a recipe from a visiting sous chef. Luscious pillows of goodness are buoyed by a rich sour cream soubise (onion sauce) with local blue cheese providing a zing.

A chicken dish provided a hearty repast served with summer beans and salty, meaty flecks of warm bacon. Tossed in a tangy garlic scape vinaigrette there was something that hinted at Alsace about this dish and I saw it as a nod to Alsatian-chef Michel Jacob. Another Alsatian quality is generosity and it also seems to have influenced Bell. Portions here are substantial, and Bell cites that he has always had a generous hand. “And I want diners to have a great experience.”

The seafood dishes, of course, are a strong suit. “That doesn’t speak to Naramata the same way as when I lived on the coast,” says Bell. “But with my relationship with John (Crofts) at Codfather’s Seafood, and our joint relationship with our fishes and farmers in and around the coast of BC, it’s something we take very seriously. Our seafood dishes are the ones where you get to taste the best of Ned Bell.”

Drawn from wild, Ocean Wise, sustainable and in-season sources, examples on the menu might be a medley of halibut, clams and Salt Spring Island mussels co-mingled in a broth of housemade butter and riesling, or Great Bear scallops, succulent and delicate, or last-of-the-season wild salmon served with foraged chanterelles, corn puree and pickled mustard seeds.

Vegetables are also given star billing and chosen first when the team creates a menu, building sustainable proteins next, all the while creating healthy nutrient-dense dishes with a good dose of plant-based ingredients.

For libations, the wine list — expertly compiled by wine director Emily Walker — represents the best of the Okanagan region by the glass or bottle, and the undecided can partake in one of the rotating flights that highlight a single grape varietal from a single vintage poured from four different Okanagan terroirs. And an ace cocktail program riffs on the classics using B.C. spirits and ingredients with a seasonal pitch.

The pastry kitchen overseen by Leigh Holuboff creates masterful yeasty things such as the brioche for the Inn’s guests at breakfast, milk buns and an aromatic sourdough at the dinner hour. Made with local Ambrosia apples, it’s moist and dense with a subtle aroma of apples and wheat, and comes with a side of their own cultured butter for slathering. The dessert course continues the culinary adventure. Signature dark and milk chocolate, a creative collaboration between Bell and Cacao Barry, called Merroir, is could be featured several ways: with honey caramel, D Dutchman sour cream ice cream, with local hazelnuts or walnut praline. And seasonal fruit works magic in tarts with fragrant lavender ice cream.

Hand-in-hand with harvest season, Naramata Slow is set for their annual dinner, Oct. 25. But with COVID, this year it’s “NaramataSlow To-Go.”

Imbued with the same community spirit, the Inn’s menu is also set to incorporate the local harvest and the winter season. “Our goal is to celebrate the best of this place,” says Bell. Flavours will be bigger and bolder – think roasted and caramelized ingredients, heartier proteins, winter root vegetables and foraged ingredients. And of course, seafood.

With fork and pen in hand, and a passion for culinary adventure, Shelora Sheldan, a Penticton writer, cook and traveller, goes in search of the delectable.