In search of the mighty Himrods 

When the mission is richer than the end game

click to enlarge PHOTO BY GLENDA BARTOSH - GRAPES GALORE Himrods [left] and home-growns, from the beautiful Okanagan.
  • Photo by Glenda Bartosh
  • GRAPES GALORE Himrods [left] and home-growns, from the beautiful Okanagan.

The mission started on behalf of my dear mom, whose family has been in the Okanagan since the 1880s.

She wanted honey from the local honey man, provided we could find the right dirt lane to turn in on. She also wanted Coronation grapes — never, in the Okanagan Valley, to be confused with those other "C" grapes: Concords, "a dirty word" as one local grower explained years ago with a grin.

Coronation grapes, for which B.C. is known, were developed in the 1970s in the plant breeding program at Summerland's Agriculture Canada Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre, a mere hop and a skip along the gorgeous Okanagan lakeshore from where our mission started.

The very proud and very local provenance of this tender, sweet and delicious deep purple table grape accounts for locals' feigned horror whenever you mix them up with Concords. The comparatively larger, heavier, purple grape developed in Concord, Mass. in the 1850s has given us the popular grape juices, jellies and more that have flooded North America. Think Welch's Grape Juice, with headquarters in — you guessed it — Concord, Mass.

But back to our mission: We found the honey man easily enough, choosing two fat jars — one an apple/cherry/dandelion blend filled with summery high notes; the other an intriguing echinacea honey with a slightly bitter finish. We were told it had at least some of the purported health properties characteristic of this popular supplement.

If you don't know how beekeepers know which flowers bees gathered the nectar from to make honey, it's simple. These days most farmers have to rent beehives to pollinate their crops, so you know exactly from whence your honey floweth. Webber Naturals, for one, are known for using Okanagan-grown echinacea in their supplements.

Now that the honey mission was settled, it was on to the Coronations.

The blazing hot, dry summer ripened grapes and just about everything else in the Okanagan were two-to-three-weeks ahead of schedule this year, but we thought we might still find some at local farm stands, even though prime Coronation harvest time has passed.

Farm stand after farm stand offered so many varieties of apples and pears you'd need both hands to count them on — Boscs, D'Anjous, Bartletts; Fujis, Ambrosias, you name it. But nary a table grape was to be found.

Any fresh grapes we saw were wine grapes still hanging from the vines — the green ones virtually disappearing amongst the foliage while the blue-black clusters looked like flocks of fat blackbirds perched along the vines.

Finally, we saw two women with a wee girl at a roadside mailbox.

"Do you know where we can buy table grapes?" I asked the younger woman, who was wearing an indigo sari. Before giving us directions, she spoke to the older woman, who, to our surprise, dug deep into the black plastic bag she was carrying and handed us a big cluster of round little green table grapes.

Take them, take them, she urged at our embarrassed refusal — we didn't mean to share their spoils! But after trying one or two we couldn't resist. They were stunning! Tender and juicy; so sweet as to be sinful, they had a terrific grape flavour topped with fragrant notes. Was it lavender? Spice? A hint of cardamom or vanilla?

To heck with the Coronations. What were these amazing green grapes none of us recognized and had never tasted before. And how could we find more we wondered as we drove off, waving to those kind and generous women.

Doing our best to follow their directions, we stopped at an honour-system farmgate: take your apples or pears; leave your money in the box. No grapes, though, so I knocked on the door to ask, holding the treasured cluster as an identifier. Another woman of East Indian descent appeared at the door, pushing aside many pairs of neatly arranged shoes, big and small. No grapes, green or otherwise, so she sent us on our way with a suggestion and a smile as wide as the gate.

Another stop, another farmer, this one wearing a cowboy hat and shovelling manure out of the paddock. No, he had no idea where to buy such grapes, nor what they were. But try the place on the corner. Or the one on the left after the curve.

And so it went for over an hour, as we tried stop after stop. The little "ma and pa" winery with the sweet tables on the patio. Closed. The farm with the yellow dog so sleepy it barely raises its head at my approach.

And it struck me somewhere between the dozen shoes and the dozy dog that this, the journey, is the real allure whether we're wine buffs visiting the Okanagan for the festivals. Or 'shroom aficionados trying to find the mighty pine mushroom around Whistler. Or cheese addicts on the trail of the best goat's cheese in Armstrong.

It's more the richness of the hunt than the treasure we seek: The smell of the pines; the crooked fences; the close encounters with kind strangers.

Grapes or none, we were having the best afternoon ever.

But even if we couldn't find any to buy, I was determined to learn what our new mystery grapes were.

If moms don't know, they usually know who to ask, so off we went to one of the oldest fruit stands in the Westbank area. Paynter's Fruit Market is now run by Jennay, granddaughter of Henry and Sheila Paynter, who started selling their fruit in the 1950s.

Jennay took one quick look at my dangling grape cluster in between loading a bunch of cornstalks into the back of a pick-up for a customer bent on making one heck of a Halloween display.

"Himrods," she declared. But she was all sold out of those, and Coronations, too.

And so our grape mission came to a close, grapeless, except for a handful from my mom and dad's own patio vine to take home.

At least now we know to be on the lookout for the mighty Himrods next season. But here's the serendipitous kicker: Himrods are the mother lode in a way we never dreamt. It was Himrods crossed with Patricia grapes at that plant-breeding program in Summerland so many decades ago that created Coronations.

I'll never look at a Coronation grape the same way again.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who wishes you luck on your next mystery mission.

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