Every November for the past 12 years, British Columbia has been enticing people who love food and wine to Cornucopia, an over-the-top gastronomic extravaganza that spans several days. Held in the quaint, walkable ski village of Whistler, Cornucopia should be on every foodie’s bucket list.
Many gourmands and wine lovers have been coming faithfully to this food and wine festival for years. The best restaurants in this upscale destination and wineries from throughout British Columbia put on a series of extraordinary lunches and dinners, many around a particular theme like truffles or seafood. And there are plenty of wine tasting events and food and wine seminars and cooking demonstrations, all with tastes that keep people deliciously busy during the five-day event.
It was my first trip to Cornucopia and to Whistler and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was deliciously surprised.
Whistler looks a lot like an upscale Swiss village with chalet and lodge style buildings surrounded by towering, snow-capped mountains. One of the nicest features is the Village stroll, a wide brick walkway that meanders through the village’s shop-filled streets. Plenty of signs, village maps, visitor kiosks, and friendly locals all combine to make finding your way around easy and pleasant.
Different parts of the village are divided into sections like Marketplace, Village Square, and Upper Village and nearly everything is within walking distance (cabs are also readily available and rides average $5-10). I stayed in the Upper Village and it never took longer than 10 minutes to walk from my hotel into the middle of town via a lovely paved pathway that meandered through woods and over streams. (The town is also surrounded by plenty of wooded trails for those who want to explore farther.) And, if you’re here for Cornucopia’s indulgences, you’ll need all the walking you can get.
Events for Every Wallet and Taste
Cornucopia has a website that explains each event and enables you to buy tickets online. Some programs like winemaker dinners from top restaurants feature specially-designed menus carefully paired with wines for every course and average $150 (though one dinner cost more than $400). Many of these winemaker dinners are put on by award-winning restaurants like Araxi and sell out early.
If you’re interested in more budget-friendly options, the Viking Series Stage Seminars cost $25-30. I read up on the offerings and then let a friend who lives in Whistler make the final choices for me.
I started off with a Viking Stage Series seminar called “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry” about fermenting and picking foods. The seminars, which are held in Whistler’s modern and light-filled Convention Center in the village center, feature cooking stations for the chef and tables and chairs for the audiences. Close-ups of the chefs’ work are projected on two, large flat screen TVs.
At every seminar, the chefs not only give the audience recipes, cooking techniques, and ingredient and cooking information, they also provide samples of their dishes paired with B.C. wines, brews, spirits, or other beverages. For instance, at my first seminar, the audience enjoyed vinegary coleslaw and freshly made sauerkraut paired with Namaste Teas. At another, “Street Meet Truck and Granville Island Brewing,” put on by two chefs who run a popular Vancouver food truck, we enjoyed risotto balls and savory hand pies paired with Granville Island Breweries beers and ales.
There are big tasting and sipping events too. One of them, the “Best of B.C.,” held in the large Whistler Conference Center, featured ribs and salmon cooked outdoors over a roaring fire. It was served with an array of sides like green salad, potato salad, and wild mushroom rice. Vendors offered samples of wine and spirits from wineries like Arrowleaf, Black Hills Estate, Stoneboat, Tinhorn Creek, and artisan brewers and distillers like Granville Island Brewery and Pemberton Distillery, as well as regional coffee, chocolate, and cheeses.
Parties that rock until the wee hours have become a staple at Cornucopia. This year, The Fairmont Chateau launched “High Rollers,” a casino-style party that was crowded with revelers late into the evening. The party featured dancers and showgirls in elaborate, sparkly costumes and headdresses, a live band, open wine and spirits bars, and appetizers and desserts. Guests were given a $10,000 chip they could use to play black jack, craps, and roulette. Top winners were given prizes like weekends at The Chateau and others were entered into a drawing for prizes like wine and gift certificates. Profits went to WAG, Whistler’s animal welfare center.
Another energetic after-hours party was Bubbles and Oceans held at Araxi restaurant. This champagne-and-seafood-appetizer (oysters, shrimp, sushi, etc.) event featured an excellent jazz violinist and guitarist. Unfortunately, the party proved so popular it was almost too crowded to breathe in the space.
Some of the events celebrate a particular ingredient or drink, such as the martini party or the luncheon at the Italian restaurant Quartto that featured Alba white truffles, a culinary gemstone. For the truffle meal, the restaurant purchased $7,000 worth (nine) of the rare Alba truffles. Servers shaved paper-thin fungi over dishes like an arugula salad with pecorino crostini and fried egg; house made papparalle with rich duck succo, and Parmesan; and braised beef wild mushroom risotto. The truffles gave each dish an earthy, complex flavor. The courses were paired with Italian wines from Deni Di Batasiolo.
Cornucopia’s Jewel: The Winemaker Dinners
Cornucopia’s elegant winemaker dinners, which allow tops chefs and winemakers to work together to show off their talents, are a huge draw at the festival and were certainly among my favorites. I enjoyed one of feasts in Hy’s Steakhouse’s clubby, wood paneled restaurant. The meal began with appetizers — a briny, fresh-tasting tuna tartare topped with crunchy black and white toasted sesame seeds; a big meaty shrimp cocktail; and a crispy risotto ball. Then it was onto a smoked salmon rosette paired with tangy cucumber “spaghetti.” Next came a crispy, juicy confit duck leg that married nicely with braised puy lentils, which were earthy and chewy.
The entrée was, of course, a perfect steak (this is, after all, a steakhouse). The medium-to-medium-rare filet mignon was elevated by topping it with seared foie gras. It was served with crispy green beans with big hunks of bacon, and chunky mashed potatoes.
The meal ended with gorgonzola panna cotta, which for me, was the only course that didn’t work. I like a sweet dessert and this panna cotta lacked a silky texture and was dominated by the strong cheese taste.
The entire meal was paired with Burrowing Owl wines. Though I don’t indulge in wine, my table mates told me the pairings were excellent and made the food taste even better.
The best meal of my three-day Cornucopia experience came at the winemaker’s dinner at The Grillroom at the Fairmont Chateau. The sophisticated dining room features floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets filled with some of Canada’s best wines.
First came a tiny appetizer of mirin marinated salmon with wild golden char caviar and pickled sea asparagus that had a delicate and briny chewiness. Next there was a chunky crab cake served with roasted beets and a chewy-creamy butternut squash risotto cooked with smoked quail, fried sage, and crushed Amaretti cookies that gave it a lovely sweet-savory contrast. Seared sablefish with crispy marrow and porcini with oxtail reduction, one of my favorites, was wonderfully tender with the earthy porcini and fatty marrow offering layerings of rich flavor.
To give our palates a break, the servers brought out a refreshing ice made of Campari and orange. It prepared us for the entrée – a peppery medallion of perfectly-cooked venison, earthy Swiss chard, and a creamy celeriac mousse that was the perfect blend of flavors and textures.
The finale for this exquisite meal came from the pastry chef – a beautifully geometric chocolate and hazelnut tart with caramel and crème anglaise. Like the previous courses, this dessert brought us wonderful deep, rich flavors and contrasting textures – crispy, silky, chewy.
Then the servers presented lovely free-form chocolate sculptures filled with handmade caramels and chocolates and soft macaroons and Madeline cookies. Unfortunately, my table mates and I were too full to really enjoy these delicious works of art.
By the time I left Cornucopia, my slacks fit a bit more snugly. But I came away with a deeper knowledge of the many wonderful culinary products that British Columbia produces and much deeper appreciation for the talents of its many chefs, winemakers, distillers, and brewers.
And, good news, for foodies: next year’s Cornucopia will be expanded to 10 days. Now that’s something worth toasting – story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor