Juniper is a coniferous shrub that produces berries. In Old Crow, Yukon it is sometimes known as ‘sharp tree’ thanks to its very prickly needles which are very familiar to all who pick juniper berries. Juniper berries should be picked with great respect as it takes 3 full years for a berry to ripen! When ripe they turn from green to a dark blue. The ripe berries can be picked any time of the year, but you may have to dig to find them under the snow in the winter, as juniper is a low lying shrub.
Eaten raw, juniper berries have a distinct aromatic spicy flavour reminiscent of gin. Juniper berries make an excellent spice — especially once ground into a powder. A coffee grinder works very well for this. A small amount of ground juniper berry goes a long way. It can be used in marinades or dusted on wild game including moose, caribou and grouse. It can even be lightly dusted on salmon. A small amount can also be added to soups or stews. According to Boreal Herbal, in Sweden a conserve is made out of juniper berries and used as a condiment for meats.
Juniper berries have a few extra qualities as well. They help digest gas-producing foods such as cabbage. Also, because juniper berries have a light coating of yeast on their skin, a few berries are often added to ferments to help out the lacto-fermenting process. So adding a few juniper berries when making sauerkraut has a triple effect: flavour, aiding the fermentation, and less gas when you eat the kraut! The yeast coating on the berries also makes them a useful ingredient in creating sourdough starter (which is another form of fermentation). Mix some flour and water and add a few juniper berries. Once it becomes bubbly and smells yeasty, you can remove the berries and the sourdough starter will be well on its way! In Old Crow, juniper berries are also boiled as a tea, which the Van Tat Gwich’in say also helps ease colds and cough symptoms.
Juniper berries should be used in moderation and avoided in people with kidney disease and in pregnant women.
At First Hunt Culture Camp students learn about all aspects of caribou hunting under the guidance of experienced Elders and hunters. Photos by Ashley Bower-Bramadat.
I don’t think many high schools in Canada offer caribou hunting as a high school credit. But Robert Service School in Dawson City, Yukon does.
Since 1995, every October, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation have introduced youth in the community to caribou hunting under the guidance of experienced Elders and hunters at First Hunt Culture Camp. It is open to all high school students, both First Nations students and non-First-Nation students, and counts as one high school credit.
This year 18 youth participated. They spent four days up the Dempster Highway (the northernmost highway in Canada) on traditional land that has always been an important source of food for Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in ancestors. The youth chop wood for the woodstoves that heat the cabins (this year the temperature dropped to -22°C during First Hunt), they learn gun safety and rifle target practice, they practice archery, they learn how to snare rabbits, and they go caribou hunting. After a successful hunt, they also participate in skinning, hanging and butchering the caribou. The meat is then distributed to local elders and used for community feasts.
I had the privilege to be part of this year’s First Hunt Culture Camp, which was held Oct. 19-22. What struck me most, apart from all the adults who volunteer time to be part of First Hunt, is how all the students totally thrived in this element, regardless if they came to First Hunt already with skill sets or were learning new skills for the first time.
Mähsi Cho for inviting me to be part of First Hunt!
Underground, above ground, inside, outside — northerners have developed numerous ways of creating cold storage areas. Perhaps one of the simplest is the outdoor freezer: as soon as it’s cold enough, and barring a thaw, many northerners simply keep foods frozen by storing them outdoors.
In the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, there is a different solution. Katrina Cockney, Manager of Administration and Community Services, explains that as late as the 1980s individual families dug ice houses for their own use. But as the community grew in size and more houses were being built, that became less practical.
In the late 1960s, with the help of government funding, the community built a freezer deep in the permafrost, 30 feet below the surface. There are three main corridors down there, opening into 19 rooms. Access is via a steep ladder through a trap door in a small, locked shed. The contents of the freezer change according to the season — in summer there might be dry fish and muktuk, geese in the fall, and caribou and dog feed in the winter.
The freezer used to be accessible to tourists, but is no longer due to safety concerns. The hamlet is considering building a walk-in icehouse in order to show tourists the local technology. In more modern times, many households have one or more chest freezers for traditional foods. When the temperature is below freezing, they often move one freezer outside. But Katrina Cockney estimates there are still about six families who use the community freezer year-round.
There is another part to the story. Not only is the freezer practical, “It’s beautiful,” says Cockney. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s like a wall full of crystals.” Cold storage can be beautiful in more ways than one.
I’ve been blogging this week about preserving and pickling without the use of salt or vinegar, as these ingredients are not locally produced in Dawson City. I had hoped to use rhubarb juice as a substitute for vinegar for pickling, but despite its low pH value, there was a chance it might not prevent botulism-carrying bacteria … definitely not worth the risk.
So, after some research and consultation, it was on to plan B, lacto-fermentation without salt, which involved using celery juice or whey instead of a salt brine. I prepared batches of sauerkraut, kimchi, and dill pickles, fermenting one jar with celery juice and another jar with whey. No salt.
And it was a success! The fermentation with celery juice worked really well and is already starting to be flavourful.
The jars with whey are not quite as promising. They seem to be developing mold quite quickly. Although fermenters know this is not a big deal. You just scoop it off as it grows. A tough transition for someone who grew up being taught to throw out moldy food. But, more importantly, the initial taste of the whey jars is not as great as the celery juice jars.
So — salt- free sauerkraut and kimchi with celery juice coming up!
An interesting tip, thanks to the local fermenter Kim Melton – to help keep the pickles and veggies crisp add a black current leaf to the bottom of the jar.
What about lacto-fermentation? Fermentation is as old as humanity. Think beer, cheese, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Lacto-fermentation of vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, takes advantage of the naturally occurring good lactic acid bacteria on the surface of the vegetables, which helps transform the juice of the vegetable into an acid that essentially ‘pickles’ the veggies. There are lots of experts in lacto-fermentation in the Yukon including Kim Melton here in Dawson. I recently took a wonderful fermentation workshop by Kim at Yukon College. However, the fermentation of vegetables calls for a brine, made from salt. And I have no local salt.
Not to worry, the ingenuity of northerners prevails! Leslie Chapman, who spent many years living in the Yukon bush near Dawson, ferments without salt. She uses celery juice.
I also consulted Kim Melton’s copy of the fermenting bible, The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, a very large book with a very small paragraph on fermenting vegetables without salt. It mentions the option of using a starter culture of whey.
I have celery. I have whey.
So I tried a new experiment. I made sauerkraut, kimchi, and dill pickles, fermenting one jar with celery juice and another jar with whey. No salt.
This past weekend the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation held their Fall Harvest Culture Camp at Forty Mile. This is an annual event where traditional knowledge is shared with youth and adults.
Forty Mile is 77 km down the Yukon river from Dawson City at the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers. It is known as the oldest town in the Yukon, but was largely abandoned during the Klondike Gold Rush. The location is currently a historic site co-owned and co-managed by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the Government of Yukon.
Forty Mile has a much longer history, however, as a harvest area used by First Nations for generations. This location was one of the major fall river-crossing points of the Fortymile caribou herd. Hunters would intercept the herd here as it crossed the Yukon River. In spring and summer, it was the site of an important Arctic grayling and salmon fishery.
The Fall Harvest Culture Camp saw harvesting of moose, chum salmon, and grouse, as well as wild plants and berries from the forest. It was a successful harvest, taking place in a beautiful and peaceful location, and overall a wonderful weekend.
Dwarf dogwood is a common wild flower found around Dawson and throughout many parts of the North. It is also known as bunchberry. In the summer there is a single white flower in the middle of this low-laying plant. Around mid-August the flower disappears and is replaced by a cluster of small orange berries.
The berries are not unpleasant, and have a small seed that is easily chewed, but the taste overall is rather bland. However, they are very high in pectin and can be used as a thickener if added to low-pectin fruits when making jam. Suzanne is gathering the berries and freezing them, and will test them out in preserves this winter.
Recently we wrote about Suzanne’s investigation of coltsfoot as an alternative source of salt, which Suzanne needs for flavouring and preserving over the next year. Well, Suzanne tried it. It was like magic!
If you taste a fresh or a dried coltsfoot leaf, it really doesn’t have much taste — perhaps a fine hint of celery flavour. But if you burn it, the resulting ash tastes salty! Admittedly it’s a smoked salt taste, but definitely salty.
Suzanne tried mixing the burnt coltsfoot in with foods during preparation and unfortunately the salt taste didn’t really transfer, but when sprinkled on top it works – as long as the coltsfoot ash touches your tongue. So it looks like Suzanne’s family will be shaking on the coltsfoot ash this year!
The experiment with mineral salt licks is also in the works, so we’ll be reporting back on that soon as well.
Soapberries (Shepherdia canadensis), also known as Buffalo Berries, are a culturally important food and medicine to many Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The berries have been an important trade item for many generations and this practice still continues today. In places where soapberry does not grow people still trade for these highly valued berries.
The berries are bitter in flavor due to the presence of a chemical compound called saponins which causes the soapy consistency of the crushed berries. Saponins have many potential health benefits to humans. They can help to reduce cholesterol, reduce the likelihood of certain cancers, they are high in antioxidants and help to boost immunity.
Food Uses: The berries are edible fresh but are quite bitter and get sweeter after a frost. The saponins contained in the berries cause them to foam up when whipped with water. Preparing the berries in this way and adding sugar makes a desert that is often called “Indian Ice Cream” that aids in digestion and has a unique flavor. Soapberries can be made into a medicinal jelly as well. Traditionally the whipped berries would be sweetened with other sweeter berries.
Medicinal Preparations: The berries, juice, leaves and stems can be used medicinally. The berries can help lower blood pressure and juice from the berries can be used to treat digestive ailments. A decoction of the stems and leaves can be prepared by simmering them in water and drinking. This decoction can then be taken as a stomach tonic or for treatment for constipation or high blood pressure. Elders have also shared that there is a soothing property to the juice when applied to eczema and other skin irritations.
Harvest Time: Mid-late summer/early autumn. The berries are sweeter after the first frost.
Storage: Soapberries can be frozen, canned (hot water bath), dried or smoked. They can also be juiced the juice can be canned (hot water bath) or frozen.
Recipe for Soapberry Whip
2 Cups soapberries
2 Cups water
Optional sweetener (sugar or other sweet berries)
Using a clean metal bowl, crush the berries up and add water (and sweetener) then whisk the mixture until it froths up and becomes pink and fluffy like whipped cream. Enjoy!
** Using an oily bowl will prevent frothing of soapberries.
Suzanne has been given a very special gift to start her journey of a year of eating local — fish eggs from the first King Salmon harvested by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in many years. Mähsi cho to Angie Joseph-Rear and all the elders, youth and adults involved in First Fish Culture Camp at Moosehide Village.
First Fish Culture Camp is an opportunity to pass on knowledge to youth regarding the fishing, cleaning, processing and smoking of salmon. It takes place over 5 days at Moosehide Village. Chum salmon has generally been the salmon processed at First Fish. With the decline of the King Salmon population and the moratorium on commercial King Salmon Fishing in the Yukon, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in voluntarily stopped harvesting King Salmon for subsistence fishing approximately 5 years ago in order to aid in the re-growth of the King Salmon population in the Yukon River. And there is evidence that the King Salmon population is increasing.
First Fish Culture Camp teaches youth traditional methods for fishing, cleaning, processing and smoking of salmon. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
On Tuesday, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elders Committee made the decision to allow a 48-hour window of King Salmon harvesting for the purpose of this year’s First Fish Culture Camp. So yesterday, for the first time in many years, the fish nets were set for King Salmon. And that evening, under the watchful eye of a boat of elders and another boat of youth and Hän singers singing ‘Luk Cho’ (which means big fish in the Hän language), the first net was checked and two beautiful King Salmon were harvested. A special day for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and First Fish Culture Camp, and a very generous and special gift to start Suzanne’s journey of eating local.
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Victor Henry has taught Suzanne to see with new eyes.
Victor generously agreed to show Suzanne and ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph how to harvest wild rhubarb around Dawson. It seems like Victor can spot wild rhubarb a mile away! In the process, Suzanne also learned to look at her environment in a new way. She can now spot these plants easily (maybe not quite a mile away) and since has noticed wild rhubarb in many of her foraging locations — even in her own yard!
When Victor was a kid living at Moosehide (just down river from Dawson) he and his friends used to pick wild rhubarb and then sneak some sugar from the house to dip it in.
Victor suggests picking wild rhubarb before it flowers, when the stalks are young (late May to early June around Dawson), not hollow, and when they are juicy when cut and squeezed. Peel back the leaves and eat wild rhubarb fresh, or chop it and freeze it for later.
You can use wild rhubarb the same way you use domestic rhubarb. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Angie Joseph-Rear, especially loves wild rhubarb relish with moose meat. You can find some great recipes for rhubarb stalks (wild or domestic) at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks website.
The young leaves can be eaten as well, either raw or cooked. (Note: only wild rhubarb leaves should be eaten, as domestic rhubarb leaves contain too much oxalic acid and are not edible.) To store the leaves, blanche and freeze them using a similar technique as with stinging nettle.
This “Traditional Raspberry Pemmican” recipe comes from the show and blog “Wild Kitchen”. Wild Kitchen is a project based in the Canadian sub-arctic about people who harvest wild food. 100% of the cast and crew are from the Northwest Territories and they work with what is available on the land to prepare nutritious recipes with a distinct wild flavor.
You can watch Wild Kitchen episodes here and on their website you can find their awesome recipes.
Suzanne is looking for ways to keep her ever-hungry 17-year-old son, Sam, full next year. Sam suggested that pemmican might be a reasonable locally-sourced snack food that will help him get through the year, especially since he spends lots of time doing physical activity. After all, Canada was practically built on pemmican. Trading posts would seek this high-protein and high-energy food from the natives, and it was used to sustain the voyageurs, especially in winter, as they traveled long distances.
The Caribou cookbook has arrived! Learn how to use all parts of the caribou. Traditional recipes such as ch’itsuh (pemmican), head cheese, and Caribou Bone Broth combined with new recipes such as Caribou Wonton Soup and Mushroom and Caribou Brain Ravioli.
Listen to the “Yu-kon Grow It” episode in which Sandi Coleman talked to authors Kelly Milner, Miche Genest, and Cathie Archbould about their new cookbook: “Vadzaih: Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof.”
On April 18th, Dawson City based ethnobotanist Leigh Josephhosted a community information session at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre . It was a great chance for Dawsonites to learn about the area’s traditional plant foods and medicines, as well as an opportunity to take part in the conversation.