Imagine it’s your turn to cook supper. And this is what the larder holds: pigs lungs, heart, liver, cheeks, feet, a tail, two ears, jowls, lacey caul fat that was once connected to the intestine, pork belly, beef tongue and several litres of pigs blood. All from Yukon raised pork and beef. Odd bits or special bits?
This was the challenge that four adventuresome Whitehorse chefs faced. Each had drawn three random ‘odd bits’ to turn into delicious appetizers for sixty paying customers. They did not disappoint!
Photos by Walter Streit and Suzanne Crocker
I have just returned from three fantastic days at Food Talks in Whitehorse, Yukon celebrating local food and hosted by the Growers of Organic Food Yukon (or GoOFY, as they are affectionately known.)
The theme of Food Talks was “All the Bits” – reminding us to value every morsel of our food and to waste less. Especially when it comes to meat. Using all parts of the animals we harvest, from head to tail to hoof, is a concept that is not unfamiliar in many cultures past and present. Beyond making nutritional and economic sense, it also offers both gratitude and respect for the animal’s sacrifice to nourish us.
Special guest, renowned chef and cookbook author, Jennifer McLagan, travelled from Toronto to attend Food Talks and address the guests.
Jennifer reminds us that what we now call the ‘odd bits’, and often toss in the scrap pile, were once the prized bits – parts of the animal that are packed with both nutrition and taste. Why are we more squeamish about eating heart than we are about eating rump roast – both being working muscles? Bone marrow is packed with iron. Blood can be substituted for egg. Jennifer says the combination of blood and milk is the perfect food – containing all the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that we require.
I had a taste of the ‘perfect food’ at the Odd Bits Tasting Event when chef Jason McRobb created a delicious chocolate blood pudding desert topped with whipped cream, candied blood orange peel and a strip of cinnamon-sugar-roasted pig skin. It was an inspiration to me to start experimenting with the many ways to cook with blood beyond blood sausage.
Even if you are feeling squeamish at the thought of eating the unfamiliar, you would have found yourself drooling at the Odd Bits Tasting Event. The flavour combinations were out of this world! Four amazing chefs, Eglé Zalodkas- Barnes, Karina LaPointe, Jason McRobb and Micheal Roberts served up tastes such as lung dumplings, breaded sweet breads with aioli sauce, pigs’ feet sweet and sour soup, pork belly on a rhubarb compote, honey glazed pig skin, beef tongue tacos… just to name a few. I tried everything and if I was blessed with more than one stomach I would have returned for seconds of it all!
I have eaten many ‘odd bits’ during the past year of eating local to Dawson. Stuffed moose heart is one of my family’s favourite meals. But I am now inspired to expand even further. The pig harvest and the moose hunt are coming soon and I will be ready to gather and make use of even more parts of the animal than before. (Hard to believe I was once vegetarian.)
If you need some tips or inspiration, check out Jennifer McLagan’s books: Odd Bits, Bones and Fat and be prepared to be inspired!
This coming weekend (Sep. 13-15) in Whitehorse, Growers of Organic Food Yukon will host the second in their series of Food Talks, titled All the Bits. As part of the activities, Suzanne will be on hand Saturday afternoon at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre (KDCC) from 1 to 5 p.m. at a special Open House to talk about the First We Eat project and her experiences from her family’s year of eating locally. Suzanne will be joined in the Open House by Canadian author and chef Jennifer McLagan.
All the Bits kicks off on Thursday night with film screening of Modified, a first-person feature documentary that questions why genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not labeled on food products in the United States and Canada, despite being labeled in 64 countries around the world.
Friday morning will see an inspected slaughter at Naturally Northern Meats, , while on Friday night four local chefs will join at Takhini Hot Springs to put on an Odd Bits Taste Fest.
All the Bits concludes on Saturday night with a pig roast at the KDCC.
Growers of Organic Food Yukon (GoOFY) is a Yukon association that promotes organic practices and provides support, education, and advocacy about organic growing and processing.
Ione Christensen, an 84-year-old baker (and former Senator) in the Yukon, is using a sourdough starter that her great-grandfather carried over the Chilkoot Pass on his way to Dawson City during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. Now 120 years old, the venerable sourdough is continuing to attract a lot of attention.
CBC’s The Doc Project did an article and podcast about the iconic Yukon sourdough. That piece caught the attention of Karl De Smedt — Earth’s sourdough librarian. De Smedt collects samples of sourdough from around the world and studies them. The samples are then stored in the refrigerated Puratos Sourdough Library in eastern Belgium for the future.
Excited to hear of the historical specimen, De Smedt and a documentary crew travelled to the Yukon to meet Christensen (who cooked her Belgian guests sourdough waffles) and arrange for a sample of the starter to be shipped to Europe and stored in the Library. A sample will also be sent to a university in Italy, where the micro-organisms living in the bread will be analyzed and studied.
The same sourdough starter was in Christensen’s household when she was growing up in Fort Selkirk, Yukon, where her father was an RCMP officer. Christensen’s mother used it regularly to make bread and flapjacks.
Sourdough has a special place in Yukon history, and was a staple for many of those who flocked to the region during the Klondike Gold Rush. The nickname “sourdough” still applies to anyone who manages to survive a Yukon winter.
During her year of eating locally, Suzanne even managed to produce her own sourdough starter using only local ingredients. Perhaps this will be the start of its own new centuries-old tradition.
The buds are appearing on the trees, there’s new growth on the ground, and across the territory farmers, gardeners and consumers are gearing up for market season. In Dawson the first outdoor market took place on May 13, Mother’s Day; in Whitehorse the Fireweed Community Market officially opens May 17; and the Stewart Valley Community Market (SVCM) will rev up on May 26th. “Keep your friends close and your farmers closer,” says a poster on the SCVM Facebook page, which pretty much sums up the idea behind local markets: farmers and community.
Joella Hogan is one of the SCVM organizers, along with Sandy Washburn and Susan Stanley. “We usually try to have five or six markets a year,” she says. “Usually the first one in spring so people can get bedding plants and visit, and celebrate spring.
“When we started, our whole point was about connecting farms to local people, because lots of people couldn’t get out to the farms,” she continues. “We had no idea that it would become this huge social thing.”
The market started up about seven years ago, with the help of funding from the Community Climate Change Adaptation Project at Yukon College, which enabled organizers to invest in tables, tents, a barbecue and a cooler. Now the market is totally self-sufficient, deriving revenue from table rentals at $10 a shot and a $25 buy-in fee for food vendors.
Farmers Ralph and Norma Meese from Minto Bridge Farm are market regulars, and so are Adam and Danica Wrench from North Wind farm, a small family operation just up the road from the Meeses. “The Meeses sell mostly vegetables and eggs, whereas Adam and Danica are getting into pigs and chickens,” says Hogan. “There’s even a local lady selling eating rabbits.”
The farmers are joined by a good handful of local food producers, artists and artisans. Sometimes jeweller Esther Winter of Winterchild Jewellery takes a table, especially when she’s testing new designs. “She’ll say, ‘These are three new designs; pick your favourite and there will be a draw.’ I love it!” says Hogan.
This year market organizers are hoping to get more kids interested in participating, whether to sell lemonade or hold a bake sale. “We want to encourage entrepreneurship and small business, so we want to get the kids involved in the market so they understand more.”
The other group in the community the organizers have their sights on is the seniors and Elders. “They’re our biggest fans; they love getting out and visiting. Our thinking is, let’s engage them to have more ownership — phoning their friends to remind them there’s a market and putting up posters, so that it becomes more of a community-wide thing.”
Hogan recently attended the Zero Waste Conference in Whitehorse. “I said to Sandy, ‘We have to get on Zero Waste!’” Now, like the Fireweed Community Market and other markets across the country, SVCM is grappling with how to reduce garbage. “How do you do that? Do you offer incentives to the vendor? Do you, as the market, supply all the dishes and utensils so it meets your values? At what expense?”
Already, SVCM uses compostable cups, and Susan Stanley has made felt holders that will go around mason jars, which Hogan then takes home and washes after the market.
That is, if folks will allow her to take their coffee cups. Hogan says, “People don’t want to go home at the end of the day. We’re packing up and they’re like, ‘I just want one more cup of coffee!’”
One of my foraging and chef friends in Whitehorse goes over to Haines, Alaska a few times every year to enjoy the sea and the salt air and do some wild harvesting. She might come back with bags of lambs quarters, she might score a clutch of chanterelle mushrooms or a kilo of spot prawns.
The other day, just back from one of her excursions, she texted me, “Want some fresh eulachon for supper?” She was lucky enough to have been there for the weekend of May 5th, when the eulachon were running. I texted back, “Wow! I’m really not sure. Do I?”
The reason for my hesitation was I’d heard that eulachon oil, a delicacy to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest from California to BC to Alaska, can be really strong for the uninitiated. I’d also heard that the fish are so oily that when dried, they can reportedly be lit to burn like a candle. I’d smelled the eulachon being processed beside the Chilkat River last spring. The aroma was powerful. But I’d never tasted the oil, or the fish.
In many parts of the formerly eulachon-rich Pacific Northwest, this small, smelt-like staple of the Indigenous diet has disappeared. Happily, the run is still strong in Haines. My friend said that the Chilkoot River ran black in places, there were so many fish. She tried catching them in a collapsible camping colander, but they were too quick, so she just plunged her hand in and grabbed them, two or three at a time, stuffed them into a pot on shore, slammed the lid on and waded back into the river to grab some more — bouquets of eulachon, the gift of spring.
Back in Whitehorse, after our text exchange, my friend came over with a baby cooler. In it were a baggie-full of eulachon and two good handfuls of devil’s club sprouts. (The only time I’ve ever tasted those sprouts is when she has brought them back for my husband and me. ) She just happened to be in the forest at the right time; one day later and the sprouts would’ve been too big, the prickles starting to harden.
That night we feasted on these two presents from Alaska, kindness of my friend. On her advice, we lightly smoked the eulachon whole, then coated them, still whole, in flour. My husband had just returned from a hike with beautiful ripe juniper berries; I crushed those and added them to the flour, which was local; the last of my supply of triticale flour from Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley.
We fried the fish quickly in butter, and the devil’s club sprouts in butter and garlic. We ate both sprouts and eulachon with our fingers. We peeled the backbone, organs attached, from the fish, split the head to remove the brains and crunched the crispy skulls in our teeth. The flesh was sweet, mild, and silky, not oily at all. The devil’s club sprouts tasted, as my friend’s partner often says, like pure life. Strong, conifer-like, bracing, almost medicinal.
I said to my husband, “We have to really pay attention because we’re not going to taste these flavours again until next spring.” The bonus of eating seasonally, and locally, is that you can savour these experiences for the special treat that they are.
Last year’s grass is long, yellow and plentiful in our Whitehorse backyard, and the new green shoots are already showing underneath. It really is time to rake away the old and prepare for the new. But I’m getting ready for a trip overseas, there’s so much to do, and the inevitable looms — I will not get to the raking.
Every year it’s the same — we have great plans for the yard. We’ll build a food forest! Sow some grains! Cause passersby to stare in wonder at the glory of our garden!
And every year, I might manage, latterly, to stuff armfuls of old grass into the compost bucket, fill a few pots with edible flowers, and maybe cut down last year’s stalks of Artemesia tilesii in the otherwise empty garden boxes. Then it’s time for the trip to Scotland, or the long hike, or the paddling trip. And instead of staring in wonder, passersby shake their heads.
My husband offers words of comfort: “We’re not gardeners. We’re gatherers.”
Right. So, we’ll gather.
By the time we get back from Scotland, the dandelions that have colonised the yard will be in flower, smiling brightly between leaves of grass. We’ll have dandelion fritters for dessert. The spruce tips will be young and green in the higher altitudes, and this year we’ll make a special day trip just for picking. I’ll make spruce tip and juniper butter, spread it on freshly baked bread and pile hot-smoked salmon on top.
And, you heard it here, I will roto-till the garden box outside the fence, dig in a whack of compost, and plant the rye I’ve ordered from Salt Spring Seeds. If all goes well, we could be gathering grain in the fall.
Gathering has to be my kind of gardening — for now.
Spruce Tip and Juniper Butter
2 oz (56 gr) butter, softened
1 Tbsp (15 mL) fresh spruce tips, finely chopped
1 tsp (5 mL) juniper berries, crushed
1 Tbsp (15 mL) garlic scapes, finely chopped
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix thoroughly. Spread on fresh bread and top with smoked salmon and sliced red onion.
As the swans return and the Yukon River breaks up, the longed-for foraging season inches ever closer. This waiting-for-spring seems endless now, but we know from experience that once the new plants start to appear it’s all going to happen really fast. First the dandelions and the spruce tips will appear, then the wild roses and the plantain and lamb’s quarters, then the Labrador tea and then the berries, the rapid succession of beautiful berries.
Now, as we lounge in spring’s waiting room, it’s a good time to reflect and prepare for the foraging season ahead. As our love of wild foods grows, there are more and more of us out there, and it becomes crucial to practice ethical harvesting, doing our part to protect and conserve, so we, the animals and the birds can continue to enjoy the wild harvest for generations.
The north is a big place, and sparsely populated, but even so the forager’s effect on the environment, especially sensitive environments, can be devastating. One Dawson resident said recently, “Indiscriminate harvesting concerns me as our population grows and more people are interested in the wild things.” When we’re out in number, our cumulative effect is far greater than we might think.
Stories from the forests of Quebec provide a cautionary tale. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum, also known as ramps, wild onion or wild garlic), once abundant in the wild, was so over-harvested for commercial and personal use that it became endangered. Urban sprawl and habitat destruction also played a part. Since 1995, by Quebec law, the only wild leek harvest permitted is 50 bulbs or plants for personal use. Today, though commercial harvesting and sales of wild leeks have been banned, the species is still listed as endangered.
Chef Nancy Hinton and her partner, the legendary Quebec forager Francois Brouillard, own Les Jardins Sauvages, a restaurant and small wild-food condiment business in Saint-Roch de l’Achigan just outside Montreal. Brouillard grew up spending summers in the woods near his grandmother’s cottage, now the restaurant, and was foraging for wild foods long before they became de rigueur on restaurant menus and at farmer’s market stalls.
Now, says Hinton, though she and Brouillard are very happy people have learned about wild foods, the downside is the woods are becoming overcrowded and habitat is threatened. “There’s a lot of people going out, and they’re going too fast, they don’t have the knowledge and the patience or the experience necessary, even if they care about sustainability.”
Worse, continues Hinton, the demand for wild food is so great it has spawned a flourishing black market. “There’s tons of people, and they sell to chefs, or to other people that sell.” This causes a number of concerns. “First, there’s no traceability, so if there’s a problem you don’t know where it came from or how it was picked. Second, these people are not people who are so concerned about sustainability.”
Hinton and Brouillard now sit on a committee that’s trying to develop guidelines for this burgeoning industry, but it’s complicated. How do you monitor compliance? How do you monitor the woods? In the case of wild ginseng, an endangered species in Ontario that brings high prices on the black market, Environment Canada is using video surveillance cameras on known patches.
In the meantime, wild ginger and crinkle root, plants that Brouillard has been gathering for years, and which still thrive on his family’s property because of careful harvesting, are listed as “at risk” in Quebec and their harvest subject to regulation. Hinton says that while she doesn’t want to dampen enthusiasm for beginners interested in wild harvesting, and understands that mistakes are made innocently, it’s frustrating to be denied access to much-loved plants because of others’ ignorance or willful negligence.
We might think it can’t happen in the Yukon. But in Whitehorse low bush cranberry pickers have already noticed that they have to go farther and farther afield to find berries, even in a good berry year. There are simply more of us out there. The way foraging works, one friend brings another, who then goes back to the same place with a new friend, who then returns with one of her friends, and so on, until the small patch of wild berries that might once have supported one person’s family with a few cups of berries for the winter is now under an enormous amount of pressure.
Last year at an area in BC famous for its wild watercress and its beautiful, extremely sensitive Karst landscape, my husband and I came across a Whitehorse family in the midst of harvesting wild watercress. They already had three large garbage bags full, and they were filling a fourth. “We do it for all of our family,” they said.
Well, okay. But surely we have to think beyond our own families. What if we all filled several large garbage bags every spring?
Amber Westfall, herbalist and wild food educator from the Ottawa area, has compiled a short list of helpful reminders on how to forage with care. It’s not a bad idea to review her guidelines while the season is not yet upon us.
Guidelines for Ethical Foraging
Composed by Amber Westfall, herbalist and proprietor of The Wild Garden, in Ottawa, Ontario. Amber says, “Please practice good stewardship and take care of the plants that take care of us!”
Make sure you have a one hundred percent positive ID. Ideally, reference more than one field guide, or go out with an experienced forager or wildcrafter.
Do not over-harvest. Be mindful of how many remaining plants are needed to ensure the stand will continue to flourish and thrive. Learn about how the plant reproduces. By seed? Rhizomes? Slow growing bulbs? Think about what other animals, insects and people might be using those plants.
Know the poisonous plants in your area and what to avoid.
Be aware that anyone can have an allergic reaction to any plant. Eat a small amount and wait 24 hour to see if you have a reaction.
Harvest away from busy roads and rail lines. Avoid contaminated areas and areas that have been sprayed with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The edges of farm fields, unless organic, are not appropriate for harvesting for this reason.
Know the history of the area you are harvesting from. Be wary of empty lots and avoid ‘brownfield’ land.
Do not harvest on private property without permission.
Do not harvest on protected land, fragile or at-risk environments or in provincial or national parks.
Learn which plants are threatened or at-risk and do not harvest them.
Learn which plants are prolific and which plants are invasive. These are ideal for harvesting.
Only harvest the appropriate part of the plant at the proper time of day and/or in the proper season.
Use clean, appropriate tools to reduce the spread of disease. Make neat, clean cuts at growing nodes to allow the plant to heal well and continue growing.
Leave some of the best specimens to go to seed and reproduce. If we take all the best plants and leave behind weak or diseased specimens, we are selecting for future plants that will be weak and subject to disease.
Have as little impact on the surrounding area as possible. Fill in any holes, re-cover bare dirt with leaf litter and try to leave the area better than you found it.
Don’t waste the plants that you harvest. Use and process them promptly while still fresh and compost any parts that are not used.
Alan and Cathy Stannard of Mandalay Farm have been raising free-range chickens for the last nine years on their acreage off the Burma Road near Whitehorse. For eight of those years theirs was a small, family-run business with a flock of about 100 birds. They sold the eggs through neighbourhood buying groups, who knew the Stannards well enough that they invited them to community brunches. Today, the egg business is still family-run but you wouldn’t call it small.
Under the brand name Little Red Hen Eggs, the Stannard’s brown free-range eggs are sold in four supermarkets and one variety store in Whitehorse, plus a grocery store in Haines Junction. Their other commercial customers include Air North, two local coffee shops and two large downtown hotels.
In 2017 the Stannards upped their egg ante considerably — they built a large barn, brought in 2,000 chicks and invested in a commercial grader that can grade 7,000 eggs in an hour. In the spring of 2017 Al Stannard told the Yukon News, “Our goal is to provide a brown, free-range egg for the Yukon.”
There’s no shortage of eggs in the Yukon — consumers across the territory have some access to eggs sold over the farm gate to buying clubs or through private arrangements. And local, graded eggs are available for sale at Farmer Roberts grocery store in Whitehorse. But the difference here is one of scale. Since the Partridge Creek Farm stopped egg production in the mid-2000s there has not been a large-scale egg producer in the Yukon; there’s never been a large-scale free-range brown egg producer.
There is a market, or several. Jonah Tredger, executive chef at the Westmark Whitehorse, has been a customer since late January. He currently buys 8 to 10 cases of 15 dozen eggs a week, and that’s in the slow season. Wykes Independent Grocer purchases 500 dozen a week; the owner reports they’re the best-selling brown egg in the store. Consumers want to buy local free-range eggs, and they’re willing to pay extra for them.
That the birds are free-range is key to the Stannard’s success, and to their own job satisfaction. “We love those birds,” says Al Stannard. “We want [them] to have a good life.” It’s hard to imagine 2,000 birds being able to range freely. But the Stannards make it work.
Inside the barn, “the girls” have a 10 by 90-foot patch of gravel, six inches deep, for scratching and digging, two essential chicken needs. “They like to dig foxholes, and lie in there and dust themselves,” says Stannard. “It’s like walking through a field full of gopher holes.”
In winter, as long is the temperature is -10C or above, the birds go outside into a fenced-in enclosure to catch some rays. They’re given feed that has not been genetically modified. “We do our utmost at all times to make sure our feed is GMO-free,” says Stannard. This is for customer satisfaction as much as bird health.
By all accounts, customers are satisfied. They send thank you cards to the Stannards. One long-time Whitehorse resident wrote, “I’ve been waiting for 60 years for something like this to come along.”
Chef Tredger of the Westmark is satisfied too. His goal had always been to serve local food at the hotel, and a recent change in hotel ownership made that possible. So he went out in search of consistent sources of local product. He met the Stannards at Meet Your Maker, an event connecting farmers and buyers co-hosted by TIA Yukon and the Yukon Agricultural Association in Whitehorse last January. “My biggest concern was trying to keep up volume,” he says. “It’s really reassuring to know, and exciting to know, that they can.”
“What I really like about being able to use [Little Red Hen Eggs] is there’s a high demand.” Any egg on the breakfast menu is a Little Red Hen Egg, and that has been good for business. “Every time we tell a customer [the eggs are local] they get pretty excited, and they tell their friends, and we see a lot of repeat business that way.”
“One of the best things is the money stays in the community. We’re supporting a local business and in turn they support us.”
The Stannards plan to build a second barn in 2018 and purchase another 1000 birds. “That way, we will not have a lack of eggs when the birds change out.” He’s referring to when the first set of birds wind down, or become “spent”, as they do after 18 months to two years of laying. The calcium in the egg shells comes from the chicken’s bodies, and their bones eventually become brittle and vulnerable to injury. At that stage, Stannard says, “we put them down quickly and quietly.” Stannard shares this aspect of egg production frankly, saying, “It’s part of the process, and it’s important that people know.”
He would like to see the spent birds be consumed as food, and has recently spoken with a local chef and café owner about giving cooking lessons on how to make soup and cook chicken feet, a classic dim sum item that’s now gaining traction in mainstream cuisine as chefs and consumers become more sensitive to eating the whole bird or animal.
In the meantime there are the eggs: free range, brown, and commercially available in Yukon markets and restaurants. If all goes as planned, Little Red Hen Eggs will soon be in a store near you.
I used to think you needed a prairie to grow grains, or at least a big field. Then I met Dan Jason, farmer, gardener, author, cook, and owner of the seed company Salt Spring Seeds. His dearest wish is that we all become grain growers, whether we have a plot of land, a box in a community garden or a backyard of clayey soil in downtown Whitehorse.
Jason lives and gardens on Salt Spring Island, and he is a legend in British Columbia. For the past 30 years, he has been finding, cultivating and saving the seeds from ancient varieties of grain; grain that has grown in different parts of the world for thousands of years, providing sustenance and a way of life for numerous peoples.
Jason is passionate about the beauty of these grains, in the field and on the plate; he loves the way they look and the way they taste, their grace and their nutritional benefits. In 2017, introduced by our mutual publisher, we collaborated on writing Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds, a garden-to-table book with growing information and recipes for grains from amaranth to rye. Now he has me convinced that not only can I cook with grains, I can grow them too. “Growing grains is a lot easier than just about anything else,” he says. “It’s like planting grass.”
Despite our short growing season and cold winters, farmers have been growing grain for animal feed and green manure in the Yukon since the Gold Rush era. But we have a history of growing grain for human consumption too. Hudson’s Bay Company trader Robert Campbell harvested a “keg” (about seven and a half gallons) of barley at Fort Selkirk in 1848. In 1901, the Pelly Farm produced wheat and sold it, ground into flour, in Dawson City. Oats, wheat and barely were successfully grown at the federal experimental sub-station at the J.R. Farr farm on Swede Creek, 10 kilometres south of Dawson, in 1917.
In the present day, Otto Muehlbach and Connie Handwerk at Kokopellie Farm near Dawson have grown and harvested rye, barley and even wheat, keeping Suzanne Crocker and her family well-supplied with grain to grind into flour for baked goods in this year of eating locally.
In 2016 Krista and Jason Roske harvested 40 kilos of triticale, a rye and wheat hybrid, at Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley near Whitehorse. I worked with their grain and flour all year long. Several years ago Tom and Simone Rudge of Aurora Mountain Farm on the Takhini River Road harvested rye and ground it into bread flour; it made beautiful bread.
But this is all grain grown on a larger scale, with the expectation of a fairly substantial yield–if not enough for the commercial market, then at least enough to contribute to the grain and flour needs of a small household. It’s unlikely that backyard grain growers will feed the family more than a few meals with their crop.
Their yield will be of a different sort—fun, satisfaction, and beauty in the garden at every stage of growth. And maybe a celebration or two.
This sesaon Randy Lamb, Yukon agrologist and chair of the Downtown Urban Gardeners Society (DUGS), which runs the Whitehorse Community Garden, plans to plant a 4 x 20-foot bed with barley from local farms, a hull-less barely from Salt Spring Seeds, and Red Fife wheat. “I should have enough to make bannock or pancakes for one of our season-end potluck socials at the Whitehorse community garden this year,” he says.
He plans to thresh and mill the grain himself, make hot cakes, and serve them with raspberry jam made with honey and berries from the garden. “My goal is to present it as “100-metre hotcakes”, based on the 100-mile diet theme.” That’s a pretty great incentive to grow some grain. Dan Jason would add, remember to eat your backyard grains whole, too. Or sprout them. “You get a lot back, sprouting your grains,” he says.
Jason thinks hull-less barley is a great idea, because it’s pretty tricky for the home gardener to remove the hulls from other varieties. He suggests rye, too, for the Yukon climate. “Rye is super-hardy. It can go to -40°C easily. And it’s easy to harvest, because the hulls are really loose-fitting. You just rub them and they come apart.” Flax and buckwheat are also good possibilities for the northern backyard grain grower. They’re hardy, adaptable and produce beautiful flowers.
Those who grew up in the Whitehorse suburb of Riverdale will remember oats and wheat growing in their midst, in the front yard of the Cable family’s house. Jack Cable planted the grains as green manure. “I was brought up in market garden country, so I knew that soil needed amendment, up here. It wasn’t a grain harvesting exercise, it was a soil-amendment exercise.” Urban grain-growing was so unusual (and still is!) that the 15 x 5–foot plot in the Cable front yard became a local attraction.
Cable’s intention was to grow a lawn once the soil had been amended. In my downtown Whitehorse backyard there is no lawn, but there is grass. Long, wild, tenacious grass. My intention is to replace some of that grass with grain. Jason suggests roto-tilling a few times first to dislodge the grass. He thinks I might even be able to grow amaranth—it’s worth a try. I’m hoping that raising grain turns out to be as low-intervention as raising the wild grasses, lambsquarters and dandelions currently holding dominion in my yard.
Would it not be the coolest thing, to walk through a Yukon community and see not mown lawns, but waving seas of grain growing in all the backyards? That would be some local attraction. As Randy Lamb says, “The locavore movement has been growing for years up here. Every season I’ve been adding something extra to my local diet. Veggies and berries are easy. Fruit, eggs, and honey take a little more effort. Grain is the logical next step.”
Guild is an old word denoting an association of like-minded people engaged in a common pursuit — armorers, cobblers, or weavers, for example. In Whitehorse weavers, sewers and felters have organized themselves into a Fibres Guild, and theatre-goers attend plays at the Guild Theatre.
On a small homestead on the Annie Lake Road, there’s a different sort of guild at work, involving players of another kind. They are plants; all kinds of plants from herbs to berry bushes to fruit trees, and they work together in a “food forest” planted and maintained by Agnes Seitz and her partner Gertie.
For the past several years Seitz has been slowly building what has become known in permaculture circles as a food forest, but is actually, she says, “comparable to a really extensive home garden.” This kind of home garden has been grown in tropical climates from the Amazon to India for thousands of years; such gardens are a low-intervention way of ensuring food security. In the mid-1980s, British gardener Robert Hart began experimenting with “forest gardening” in Shropshire, England, bringing those techniques into a more temperate climate.
In the Yukon several gardeners and homesteaders are experimenting with building food forests in a much colder environment, Seitz among them. “The idea is that a young woodland is the most perfect natural system and the most prolific one,” she says. “And that’s what we’re trying to copy, a young woodland.” A young woodland occurring naturally is basically self-sustaining. While a planted food forest is not entirely self-sustaining, it can come close.
Planting in guilds is a cornerstone in the building of a food forest. “You plant in such a way that throughout the season [the plants] support each other,” says Seitz. “There are nitrogen fixers in there, there are attractants that bring in the bees for pollination, there are plants that bring up minerals from the soil. You bring all these players together in a system that makes it so much easier on us.”
When she was starting out, “because we don’t have soil here,” Seitz brought in a truckload of compost from the City of Whitehorse dump. Five or six years later, now that the system is up and running, Seitz’s interventions are low-tech and low-key. She fertilizes with wood ash and human urine. “Humans are one more part of the habitat we are building there,” she says. “An apple tree needs about five pees a year to get all the nitrogen it needs.”
Seitz also uses “green manure,” turning plants into fertilizer using a technique called “chop and drop.” After harvesting, “you just cut the plants and let them fall, and they feed the micro-organisms and that’s how you build the soil.”
Seitz also grows a huge annual garden of organic vegetables, which she says requires lots of controls and lots of work. Square foot for square foot, the annual garden uses nearly twice the mount of fertilizer of the perennial food forest.
She estimates there are about 80 species of herbaceous plants in her 4,000 square-foot food forest, most of them edible, like sorrel, burdock, mint, lovage, a wide variety of chives and onions, and Old World plants like sweet cicely and Good King Henry. Mixed amongst these plants are nettles, fireweed, lambs quarters and dandelions. “Wild foods, what we call weeds, are an essential part of the system,” she says.
The next layer up is composed of berry bushes such as Saskatoons, gooseberries, red, white and black currants, haskaps and raspberries. Among the next layer, the fruit trees, are hawthorns, sour cherries, pin cherries, several species of apple, Siberian pear, Manchurian plum, Manchurian apricot, Siberian pine (there may be pine nuts in 12 or 15 years) and even hazelnuts.
The more exotic species are still “kind of a research project,” says Seitz. Though the hazelnuts are not yet fruiting, they have lasted three years. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they did with this really cold winter.”
Seitz has not planted low-bush cranberries, a favourite Yukon berry, because she can easily walk into the surrounding boreal forest to find them. “They’re right around the corner.”
But for just about every other kind of herb, plant, berry or tree fruit, she says, all she has to do is walk into her backyard food forest and “kind of like just – forage.”
On the last day of 2017, I’m looking back on a year of cooking with local foods and reflecting on the highlights. I was lucky enough to spend much of 2017 cooking and baking with a locally grown grain: triticale from Krista and Jason Roske’s Sunnyside Farm, located in the Ibex Valley close to Whitehorse. The Roskes acquired some seed from Yukon Grain Farm in the fall of 2015 and planted it on a portion of their land, intending to plow the plants back under to enrich the soil. But 2016 was such a good growing year that the plant actually matured, a rarity for grain in the Whitehorse area.
From that planting the Roskes harvested about 40 kilos of grain, by hand, and sold small quantities of whole grains, bread flour and pastry flour to customers in and around Whitehorse. I learned about their grain and flour from Jennifer Hall, executive director of the Yukon Agricultural Association, and a great champion of local farmers and their products.
The Roskes delivered one kilo each of grain, bread flour and cake and pastry flour to my house in early 2017. I was in the midst of developing recipes for a cookbook celebrating ancient grains, written in partnership with Dan Jason, a passionate organic farmer and owner of Salt Spring Seeds, and experimenting with all kinds of grains. (Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds will be released by Douglas and McIntyre in early 2018. Stay tuned for Whitehorse and Dawson launch details!)
The Roskes’s bread flour made a beautiful sourdough pumpernickel-style bread, and the pastry flour produced gorgeous muffins, excellent quick bread, delicious beet gnocchi and most recently, lovely birch syrup shortbread cookies for Christmas.
That triticale got around in 2017. Chef Chris Whittaker of Forage and Timber Restaurants in Vancouver made tiny mushroom tartlets with the pastry flour at a Travel Yukon dinner last February, and in June, chef Carson Schiffkorn and I served whole triticale grain with a morel mushroom-miso butter to guests at Air North and Edible Canada’s Across the Top of Canada dinner at Marsh Lake. I served the very last of the whole grain, with more miso butter, for a media dinner hosted by Travel Yukon on November 26. Everybody loved the story of the accidental success of this beautiful, locally grown grain.
Triticale is not an ancient grain, but a hybrid of wheat and rye first developed in the late 1800s in Scotland and Germany, combining the grain quality of wheat with the hardiness of rye. In 1954 the University of Manitoba experimented with the viability of spring triticale as a commercial crop, and in 1974 the University of Guelph did the same with winter triticale. Winter triticale varieties are particularly good for short-season areas like the Yukon.
For the Roskes, hand-harvesting triticale grain “quickly lost its charm,” reported Krista. However, the success of growing triticale has whetted their appetites for more grain experiments, and Krista said they’re planting spring wheat in 2018. “Fingers crossed we will have wheat for flour by next September. I’ll definitely let you know if it works out!” Last time we spoke, the Roskes were contemplating buying more machinery — perhaps a small combine and a small grain cleaner. “It’s farm evolution,” said Krista.
I’m sad to say goodbye to the last of the whole triticale grains, but very happy that I will be returning from Christmas holidays in Ontario to a few cups more of triticale flour in my pantry at home. Birch syrup shortbreads anyone?
Sheila Alexandrovitch has homesteaded on the Annie Lake Road, 40 kilometres south of Whitehorse, since 1981. Over the years she’s raised goats, llamas and sled dogs; she’s brought up her two children on the farm, and pursued an artistic practice there, working with materials like willow, beads, precious stones and wool. These days she raises sheep (producing beautiful felted work with their wool) and as always, vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables.
Alexandrovitch is locally famous for her vegetable ferments, selling jars and jars of them at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse and the weekly market at the Mount Lorne Community Centre on the Annie Lake Road all summer long. At Mount Lorne’s last, stock-up market of the year, on September 26, she and her helper stood behind two tables groaning under her ferments, and giant mounds of fresh carrots and potatoes. As I purchased a few pounds for our house, we struck up a conversation about root cellars — I knew she was pretty much self-sufficient, and curious about her storage methods.
Every winter, Alexandrovitch stores an impressive weight of vegetables in her root cellar — this year, she’s got 135 pounds of potatoes, 80 pounds of carrots, 40 pounds of beets, 20 to 30 pounds of parsnips, 35 pounds of turnips and 7 or 8 cabbages. Asked when she runs out of supplies, she replied, “I don’t. By the end of June I’m out of carrots, but I always have rutabagas and beets, and I always have potatoes. And by the end of June, we’ve got greens.”
The cellar that stores this bounty is a hole dug into the ground under her house, accessed by a trap door in the kitchen floor. The cellar is framed in with 2 x 6 boards, insulated with Styrofoam, sheeted in on the inside and completely sealed. In the 2½-foot crawlspace between the earth and the floor of the house, the walls of the cellar are exposed, so the above-ground portion is wrapped with Styrofoam and foil and banked with dirt.
The space is 7 feet long by 6 feet wide and around 4 ½ feet deep — about chest height for Alexandrovitch. There’s no ladder — she just lifts the trap door and jumps in. She piles whatever supplies she’s retrieving onto the kitchen floor, and then jumps out of the cellar, the same way you’d push yourself out of a swimming pool. (She finds this athletic feat unremarkable.)
In winter the temperature in the root cellar is around 2° or 3°C above freezing. There’s no air circulation system, but she’s never noticed any ill effects from ethlylene — not surprising, because most of the foods she stores don’t produce ethylene. (Learn more about the fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene here.)
Alexandrovitch keeps endive, leeks and chicory in pots, in another cold space, this one on her porch. She runs out of those greens sometime in January, but then she’s got all her ferments, plus frozen leeks and kale, kept in her freezer at a neighbour’s place. She has canned goods and grains in the root cellar, and she might drive to town for coffee, butter and oil, but she prefers to use goose fat—she’ll render 6 to 8 litres this year–or pork fat, which she’ll also render.
Alexandrovitch estimated that she spends about 95% of her time growing, processing, preserving and preparing her food. “But what a good way to spend 95% of your time,” she said. “It’s not so hard. It’s just a bunch of work.”
Miche here. In late October my household of two took delivery of a 35 lb box of local carrots, cabbage, beets and potatoes, part of a fundraiser for a local school. It was not an overwhelming amount, but it did bring up again one of our failures when we built our house in Whitehorse. We forgot to include a cold room.
The family home in downtown Toronto, where I grew up, had a cold room. It was a dank, dark, spidery kind of place, and it was, on one occasion, the lair of a roast beef dinner, stored temporarily during a power outage and then forgotten. The roast beef, peeled potatoes and sliced onions transformed over time into an awe-inspiring, slime-covered monster. (We brought our friends to see it until my mother found out. As I recall she threw the dinner away, roasting pan and all.)
But though not altogether welcoming the cold room did what it was supposed to do—it kept whole, unpeeled, raw root vegetables cool enough for long-term storage.
Now, in present-day Whitehorse, my household doesn’t stockpile local root vegetables because we don’t have a cold space, apart from the fridge.
Instead, we freeze, can, pickle, ferment, and go to the store to buy root vegetables that someone else has stored. Freezing, salting, drying, smoking, fermenting and canning are all technologies key to the long-term storage of food. But only cold storage preserves the vegetable raw, so you can eat a crunchy, home-grown carrot in January or grate a local beet into your coleslaw in mid-March.
Over the next while here at First We Eat, we’ll be exploring food storage ideas from across the north. Tell us: how do you keep your vegetables over the winter? Do you have a root cellar? Do you cover your carrots in sand? Do you wash them first or not? What do you do about cabbage?
In the meantime, I see a lot of kimchi in my future.
The first Fireweed Market of the season opened Thursday at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse on a beautiful sunny day—let’s hope Thursdays stay sunny for the rest of the summer!
A small but mighty crowd of farmers, vendors and enthusiastic customers were there, reconnecting after the long winter, sharing gardening tales, buying bedding plants, and snacking on kettle popcorn or samosas. Buskers busked, little kids chased each other through the stalls and the occasional dog was spied eyeing up the snackers and hoping for a dropped pakora.
Supplies of produce were limited, as always at the beginning of the season, but Bart Bounds and Kate Mechan of Elemental Farms had swaths of starts for sale. (Bart said recently, “My ultimate dream is to get everyone in the Yukon growing their own vegetables and I grow the seeds.”)
Local cook and author Michele Genest came home with starts of beets, cabbage and kale from Elemental Farms, (she’s not a gardener, but this year, in solidarity with Suzanne, she’s determined to succeed) a dozen eggs (the blue ones are so beautiful) from Michael Ballon, and an order for two chickens and two turkeys from Grizzly Valley Farms. All in all, she reports, a most satisfying day.
It won’t be long before markets open in Dawson, Mayo and Haines Junction. Here’s to a great growing and eating season!
In this episode of Yu-kon Grow It, Sandi Coleman interviews Brian Lendrum and Susan Ross, who have been goat farming outside of Whitehorse for decades and producing delicious goat cheese.
Pioneers in the dairy business around Whitehorse, Lendrum and his wife found that their area around Lake Laberge had perfect conditions for raising goats, with rolling hills and lots of different vegetation for the goats to enjoy. On a regular basis, they would produce about 30 litres of milk a day, which translates to around 3 to 4 kg of cheese. Every week, they would take around 10 kg of their freshly made goat cheese to the local market, and sometimes sell out within the hour. They also experimented with goat milk yoghurt and sold bottled goat milk.
It is a wonderful thing that our farmers have the ability to overwinter and breed livestock in the North!
Piglets, Calves, Kids and Chicks are a Spring ritual at Aurora Mountain Farm in Whitehorse. Aurora Mountain produces certified organic chicken, eggs, hay and vegetables (including garlic, yum!) available seasonally from their farm. They also offer delectable wild crafted preserves, jams & mustard, and even handmade goat milk soap!