11 April 2013

Blue Cheese Walnut Crackers and a Visit to Upper Bench Winery and Creamery

Upper Bench King Cole Blue Cheese Walnut Crackers with Gold and Roasted Grapes
The Okanagan Valley has earned a well-merited reputation for the excellence of their world-class wines. For those of you who would like to know we are part of Canada's only desert (being part of the Sonoran desert that travels from Canada and into Mexico). Surrounded by more than 240 wineries and counting and bordered by 3 lakes, our interior British Columbia region is often dubbed the Napa Valley of the North. What I noticed most on my leisurely drive this weekend is that wineries seem to be popping up on a more frequent basis in recent years. There is so much new to discover I can see my wine-tasting season jam packed with activity.

Naramata Bench
Most of the wineries are open to the public for tastings but there is so much more here year round to lure you than sampling wines, informative tours, exquisite artwork, farm-to-table restaurants, powder skiing, and jaw-dropping scenery. A visit to wine country is a pleasant diversion any time of the year. In summer the days are long and warm, perfect for bike rides along country roads or abandoned railroad trestles, picnics, music festivals, concerts and art shows. As summer gives way to cooler weather and the crisp evenings of autumn thousands of acres of vineyards turn to burnished colours of red, yellow and gold which is a colourful reminder that it is harvest time. You can sense the energy of the crush as vintners rush against the clock to pick grapes at their prime to create dazzling wines. Spring here is glorious when the valleys are painted in greens of every description with a backdrop of jaw dropping undulating mountains and emerald lakes contrasting dramatically with the dark bark of row upon row of vines laced with the tender green of new leaves. The vineyards are coming back to life after the deep sleep of a Canadian winter and my thirst is rejuvenated as they reopen one by one.

On a warm day in April two savvy food enthusiasts, a small contingent of the "Chicks Who Wine," met up with Shana and Gavin Miller, owners of Upper Bench Winery and Creamery situated in Penticton, at the gateway to the picturesque Naramata Bench to find out their story. This deeply rooted couple has a rich history that helps explain their approach to viticulture, winemaking and cheese making at Upper Bench. It was a combination of passions that brought these passionate owners together many years ago. Now married 16 years he is a former salesman originally from the UK, she is a former accountant originally from Nova Scotia, who with their two teenage children Max and Chloe are knee deep in the family business. This engaging couple have always shared the dream of owning their own winery and combining their crafts. That magical day arrived in 2010 when a former Holman property on Penticton’s Upper Bench came up for auction. The stars aligned, partners Margareta and Wayne Nystrom were found, and the deal was sealed. There is a buzz about their winery and creamery lately that may change the course of not only their history but the history of the area.

Upper Bench Winery and Creamery offers a unique experience to locals and visitors alike by offering pairings of their two passions... artisan wine and hand‐crafted cheese. Opened in 2011 this husband-and-wife team owned winery is the perfect marriage (pun intended) of winemaker (Gavin) and cheese maker (Shana). In season they also sell local seasonal fruit at their shop, so it’s a picnic basket waiting to happen. You can choose to either relax with a glass of wine on their sunny patio and enjoy a flight of their latest releases perfectly paired with one of their cheese platters and daily fresh bread, or, fill up your shopping basket with goodies to take home or on an impromptu picnic. This is one-stop shopping for food and wine aficionados at this easily accessible, euro-like, farm gate-style winery. Wine, cheese, bread, fruit … a gourmand’s dream combination. The winery has also started weekly pizza nights, partnering with Flat Bread Farms from Cawston to create pizzas using Upper Bench cheeses and, naturally, pairing them with one of their wines.

Shana and Gavin met in 1995 when Gavin came to Canada on vacation which ultimately led to his decision to immigrate. He was inspired by the blossoming Okanagan wine industry and the decision to go back to school to learn about wine and grape sales was made. Very early on he decided his passion was not to sell wine, but to produce it. He then embarked on a journey through the vineyards and cellars of this dynamic area, working for many of the established wineries in the area, notably making award‐winning wines for Poplar Grove and Painted Rock. In true entrepreneurial fashion his passion for the vineyard and the terroir of the area came to fruition when he was able to create his own wines with his signature, hands‐off, minimalist winemaking approach.  It is no surprise that what is coming out of his own tanks and barrels is nothing less than spectacular. His Upper Bench Estate vineyard grows seven varietals on seven acres and this Spring he will be releasing a Rosé, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling as well as a Merlot and Pinot Noir. They also have Sveigelt vines on the property that in my humble opinion also make a stunning wine.

We were lucky enough to not only try several of these award winning wines on a blustery Spring day but to pair them with Shana's creamy bries and silky blues after a tour of her brand spanking new  CFIA registered state of the art creamery. Shana Miller, a.k.a. "The Big Cheese," discovered her passion for making cheese in 2002. She was fortunate enough to have been taught the art of making hand‐crafted cheeses by the original cheese maker for Poplar Grove, Sandra Chalmers. When Shana began creating her own cows milk cheeses for Upper Bench, almost ten years later, she wanted to mix things up and branch out. By customizing every aspect of the cheese‐making process and listening to her inner creativity Shana has been able to lovingly cultivate 60 to 80 kilograms of her own unique cheeses per week. She turns 100% Canadian pasteurized cow's milk into an extraordinary collection of blue cheeses, brie and a few washed rind cheeses. According to the Ace Bakery site, "Shana completes every step in the cheese making process by hand. This includes cutting the curd, hooping, flipping, piercing, washing, wrapping and labelling. She believes that the real difference is made when the formed curds are brined and put into the temperature and humidity controlled aging room. This is the “affinage” stage where she coaxes each wheel of cheese to its full potential."

"A self-proclaimed curd nerd, 
 Cheesemaking is like raising children. 
The more love, nurturing, 
and attention they receive, 
the better they turn out.”

-- Shana Miller --

She offers eight delectable cows milk cheeses in her aging rooms: U &Brie, Gold, Gold French, Gold Italian, Okanagan Sun2, Grey Baby, King Cole, and occasionally Moody Cow. For Shana, cheese making is an ever‐evolving process of creating and perfecting delectably hand‐crafted cheeses. When you visit the winery Shana invites you to come and watch her craft her mouth‐watering cheeses through the creamery viewing window as well as experience a perfect pairing from this talented duo in the Upper Bench tasting room.

Shana Miller and her King Cole  
What brought me personally to their winery on this early Spring day was the fact that cheese maker, Shana Miller has been chosen to be a part of ACE Bakery’s first Artisan Incubator showcase. Shana will not only be representing the Okanagan Valley, but also helps to represent the province’s culinary artisans nationally as one of four artisans selected from the province of British Columbia. The other artisans coming out of British Columbia have mastered gelato, sea salt and balsamic vinegar.

She has been asked to bring along her King Cole blue, named for both branches of her family, which is a bold-flavoured, velvety semi-soft, surface ripened blue cheese with veining through out and hints of apple and pear. She has also been asked to bring her Gold which is a semi soft surface-ripened cheese, similar and yet distinct, from an Oka or Port Salut.

Shana and her Gold
ACE Bakery wants to pay it forward on their 20th Anniversary by helping to encourage other talented Canadian artisans. The Artisan Incubator will be held in Toronto in June, where the 20 artisans chosen from 140 coast to coast will be recognized. Each will have the opportunity to glean invaluable information and industry insights from ACE Bakery who has had its roots in artisanal baking for 20 years. With this chance to pay it forward ACE Bakery hopes to help each achieve success including business insights and national exposure that will help them grow as a company. These hard‐working artisans put their heart and soul into everything they make.

Leading the initiative is Anita Stewart, Canadian culinary activist and chair of the Tastemaker committee for the ACE Bakery Artisan Incubator. Shana will receive advice from renowned Tastemakers, attend seminars covering branding, marketing and business planning, as well as small business financing and management from lead sponsor BMO Financial Group. The Tastemakers will co‐host and work directly with the artisans on developing recipes, hosting workshops and providing advice on their business. The Tastemakers include the likes of Lynn Crawford (Pitchin' In and Ruby Watchco), Pete Luckett (Luckett Vineyards) Anne Desjardins L'eau a la Bouche), Connie DeSousa (Top Chef Canada), John Jackson (CHARCUT Roast House), Robert McCullough (Random House), Michele Genest (Boreal Chef Cooking, North Of Ordinary Magazine).

For todays experiment into Artisan cheese and wine I decide to make Blue Cheese and Walnut Crackers that are reminiscent of cheese straws and biscuits which are popular party fare. Traditionally these are made with sharp cheddar cheese. With Upper Bench Winery and Creamery King Cole these provide an alternative flavour profile combined with the classic pairing of walnuts. These shortbread-like crackers can be made up into logs and kept tightly wrapped in the freezer to have on hand for a quick accompaniment to a cheese tray whenever a glass of wine is needed. They are very tasty solo but equally stunning topped with another winery cheese Upper Bench Gold, or paired with Roasted Grapes. Roasted Grapes sound a little odd, but this is one of those recipes where the end result is more than the sum of its parts. Something wonderful happens when you apply heat to grapes tossed in fragrant olive oil. The transformation is unexpected; familiar and exotic at the same time with tasting notes of figs or plums. The recipe will be coming in an upcoming post.

I paired all with Upper Bench Chardonnay which is mentioned delivers "notes of lemon drop, honey, ripe banana and toffee to the nose. Its crisp acidity, citrus, stone fruit, mango and papaya satisfy the taste buds while subtle French oak provides a lush mid-palette and a long rich finish."

Sadly for us, for the moment, Shana's cheeses are only available at Upper Bench Winery and through the talents of some of our local notable chefs, such as Mark Filatow of Waterfront Wines in Kelowna, who feature her cheeses in their restaurants. Not only are their individual passions evident in the products they are creating, but Gavin and Shana are also an incredibly fun, warm and inviting couple who are always willing to share the love of their craft.

Kudos to Upper Bench Winery and Shana and Gavin Miller for their vision. With their passion for outstanding flavour and quality I look forward to "celebrating your flavour" every time I visit the Naramata Bench.

Read my friend Roz' account of our day with the "Chicks Who Wine."

Upper Bench Winery and Creamery
170 Upper Bench Road South, Penticton, BC
Phone: 250-770-1733
Website: http://www.upperbench.ca/
Blue Cheese and Walnut Crackers with Roasted Grapes and Gold

**Blue Cheese and Walnut Crackers with Gold Cheese and Roasted Grapes**

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
8 ounces (1/2 cup) King Cole Upper Bench Winery blue cheese, crumbled (about 12 ounces with rind), at room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 extra-large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts (1/4 cup to be ground)
Upper Bench Gold
Roasted grapes (recipe to follow next time)

In a food processor grind 1/4 cup of toasted walnuts. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter , ground walnuts, and blue cheese together for 1 minute, or until smooth. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour, salt and pepper and mix until it's in large crumbles, about 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon of water and mix until combined.

Dump the dough onto a floured board, press it into a ball, and roll into a 12-inch long log. Brush the log completely with the egg wash. Spread the walnuts on a cutting board and roll the log back and forth in the walnuts, pressing lightly, and distributing them evenly on the outside of the log to cover it completely. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 4 days to allow the flavours to mingle.

When ready, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cut the log 1/4-inch thick with a small, sharp knife and place the crackers on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake for 18-22 minutes, depending on your oven, until very lightly browned. Rotate the pan once during baking. Cool and store in airtight container. Serve at room temperature. In a dry location they will stay fresh for 3 - 4 weeks.

You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author/owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.

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  1. So interesting..thanks for the recipe:-)
    I bought dark seedless grapes yesterday to try Sue's recipe:-)
    Is that the one?

    1. Sue was the inspiration for my Roasted Grapes but I opted for a slow roasted recipe. On a cooler day like today it kept the kitchen warm to cook them at a low temperature for 2-/ hours :D

  2. I want these in my belly immediately. They sound so good!

  3. what nice and yummy posts Val I love blue cheese (really I love all cheese) xo

  4. Yum and how fun. Your crackers would be wonderful with a zillion different toppings!

  5. A wonderful winery and creamery! That blue cheese looks so delicious.

    Wonderful crackers! The kind I cannot stop eating...



  6. Ooh, I want to be a "Chick who Wines." Love your blue cheese and walnut crackers with the roasted grapes. I've served a similar cracker from Ina, but I never thought of a topping. Great idea Val.

    1. I was inspired by Ina's Stilton crackers as well Sam. They are shortbread like and these have ground walnuts in the dough and the rest create a crunchy coating. They are very addictive just like their cheddar cheese counterparts.

  7. Love the blue cheese! And the crackers! And the grapes! What I mainly love is the idea of a winery on a spring day in April. There is no spring here this year. I am definitely a "chick who wines!"

  8. I enjoyed your post so much, Val. I live in the middle of Oregon's wine country and love to go tasting on the weekends. The vineyards are so beautiful and there are always fun things going on.

    1. Some day I hope to be in the middle o Oregon wine country Cathy. When I was in San Francisco a few years ago I thought taking the bus back to Canada would be a good way to see the State, but it was night time so all I saw was the bus station in Portland.

  9. That huge hunk of blue cheese gave me chills!! How awesome! I love these cracker bites. So much flavor all in one handheld package.

  10. You know, as much as I love BC wines, I've never actually been to a winery! Next trip!

    1. Got to do it That Girl. Niagara region wines are pretty spectacular too.

  11. Beautiful cheese! I am so envious of all the places you can visit in your part of the country.

    1. You will be here soon Sarah sampling from some of the best chefs in the province in both Osoyoos and K-town. If you want we can tour a winery on Sunday morning if you are up this way.

  12. Days rarely get more perfect than the one you have described. The wine and the cheese make the valley a foodie paradise. I hope you weekend is off to a great start. Blessings...Mary

  13. Great post Val and recipe. I roasted grapes once for about 6 hous very slowly and got the most wonderful raising then I shocked them with ouzo...

  14. Sounds like the perfect way to spend a day!

    I've not tried to roast grapes yet but they look delicious with the crackers and cheese.

  15. I wish I could go with you on your visits. I suppose I will just have to enjoy the recipes instead.

  16. What fun, Val. Thanks for sharing.
    I love the idea of roasted grapes on those wonderful crackers!

  17. i think in another life, i'd like to be a cheesemonger. your crackers sound spectacular!

  18. Delicious!
    I have yet to go to this winery but as you said there are so many popping up nowadays, my summer will be busy with wine tasting and charcuterie platters in the sunshine.

    The Wanderfull Traveler

  19. Hmmmm - it sounds as if Paul and I need to get out to visit BC. We do not get many BC wines here in Ontario .. .time for some exploring.


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