Fall in the Yukon is just one of the million reasons I love living here. The spectacular undulating carpet of yellows and reds and greens takes my breath away every year.
And it’s cranberry season!
High bush cranberries for juicing and low bush cranberries, also known as lingonberries, for almost anything else – pies, muffins, scones, pancakes, jam, jelly, chutney, and delicious cranberry sauce. I became addicted to the low bush cranberry when I lived in Newfoundland where they are known as partridge berries. They are excellent keepers for the winter as they sweeten, not soften, with freezing.
Last year was a very poor wild berry season. Thanks to the generosity of many Dawson berry pickers and some careful rationing I had just enough cranberries to get us through. This year is better and I am rejoicing in the ability to pick buckets full of cranberries once again.
Their exploits have produced a cookbook that features recipes and stories collected on the road, from home cooks to seasoned professionals alike, including our own Miche Genest. They not only celebrate Canada’s culinary diversity, but also note how important it is to look at where our food comes from and what we can do to get involved.
We had a chance to ask them some questions about their project.
How did the idea originate for your project? What sparked the whole thing for you?
When we were camping this one time we had a long conversation about food and culture, Canadian food culture, and how we had both travelled across the country (we both grew up in different parts of the country) and it turned into a talk about what we point to as Canadian food and we didn’t quite know the answer. We thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a project where we went around for a certain amount of months to specifically talk to people in different regions and see what people were making and what they were eating. And we thought the most efficient way to do it would be on a road trip.
What makes Canadian food Canadian?
Canadians tend to think that we don’t have a distinctive culinary culture, it is interesting because there is this mentality that we are an immigrant nation and that the foods we consume are imported from other cultures, but it is in the mixing of those influences that you can find it. There are all these dishes that maybe come from somewhere else, but they are transformed by Canadian-specific ingredients and they become a whole new thing.
And there is this feeling of “oh, this is just what we eat. This isn’t Canadian food”, as if we are reluctant to claim a food culture, and the wider sentiment is that we don’t have one. It is almost like the cliché of Canadians, that we are always apologizing for everything, and we are also apologetic for our own culinary culture.
What kind of dishes or cooking techniques that you had never heard of before did you discover on your roadtrip? Did any of them make their way into your everyday cooking?
There were almost daily discoveries. One of the coolest discoveries of a cooking technique was when we were on Spring Island on the northwest coast of Vancouver island and we were on a kayak expedition, and cooks from the Kyuquot first nation showed us this traditional cooking method for fish in which they butterfly the salmon and weave it through cedar slats and they roast it vertically over the fire. And it was the best roasted salmon I‘ve ever had, but it also felt like a whole experience, not just a meal.
The trip and the process of writing the cookbook completely opened us up to new cooking techniques and ingredients, like for example I had never cooked wild boar before, and we got this recipe from a Saskatchewan chef for wild boar meatballs and then we started seeing that you could actually get these ingredients around our area. Learning to cook different types of wild game and realizing how different all the flavors are, and that there really is so much variety out there. We definitely expanded our kitchens
In P.E.I. a chef gave us a recipe for scallops that combined them with a pear and currant salsa, a combination that you normally wouldn’t think of but they are all super Canadian ingredients that were locally sourced from the area. All the recipes in our cookbook feel Canadian for different reasons, either ingredient based or culturally based. Perhaps a recipe just happens to be really popular in a specific region, or the reason is because of the ingredients that are found there.
What are your thoughts on the issue of food security?
It is interesting for people who want to change the way they eat and be more aware of what they consume, I think this is such a much easier time to do so. Food is a topic that has been exploding for the last 10 years or so, the local food movement has expanded so much. In my experience, the best way to get involved is to reach out and talk to different people, ask more questions, ask what everyone is eating and where it comes from. Also we have to think on practical terms, not everyone has the economic means to start spending more money on organic food at farmer’s market or the time to grow their own food all of the sudden, but the fact that things are shifting is very important. Making an effort to be part of the conversation is important. A good way to do this is sharing meals together.
Dana and Lindsay's Yukon visit included a tour of Klondike Valley Nursery and a special dinner at Miche Genest's house - Photos by FEAST
Salmon roasting with cedar slats, Kyuquot stye - Photo by FEAST
My experience last Fall taught me that hulling grain is no easy feat. In fact sometimes, as is the case for oats and buckwheat, it is virtually impossible for a home gardener. Therefore I was thrilled that Salt Spring Seeds carries hulless varieties of grain. After consulting owner Dan Jason, I decided to try Faust Barley (hulless) and Streaker Hulless Oats.
And look how well they are doing!
Gardening has never come easily to me. I struggle to grow brassicas while the local farmers produce them in abundance.
This year I decided to try my luck growing edibles that are not so easily found at our local Farmers Market. My raised beds are hosting oats, barley, amaranth, Tom Thumb popping corn and onions. The onions are not looking so good but, so far, the rest seem to be growing well.
With the idiosyncrasies of our short growing season, grains have often been difficult to grow in the North. Perhaps as a result of climate change, perhaps due to hardier cultivars, it seems that in the past few years growing grain is becoming more feasible.
So it is a good time test out the possibilities of back yard grain growing in the Yukon!
Fingers crossed that local barley and local breakfast oats will be on the menu in our house next year.
One of my favourite edible leaves, lungwort (commonly known as blue bell) is now out and about around Dawson City. The young leaves are very tasty raw and can be added to salad, steamed or added to soups and stews. The early flower buds are also quite tasty – (although I always feels a bit guilty eating them before they have a chance to flower).
Important rule of thumb: In general, blue and purple flowering plants are NOT edible. Lungwort is the exception. Don’t eat lupine or delphinium or Jacob’s ladder which are also starting to appear around the same time (but the leaves look very different from lupin).
The buds on the birch trees are just starting to turn green, which means it’s coming to the end of birch sap season. For the past few weeks you could spot a birch tree being tapped in many Dawson City backyards.
Most of us have been tapping a tree in order to drink the cold, refreshing and nutrient rich birch water – loaded with thiamine (one of the Vitamin B’s) and manganese, as well as some Vitamin C, iron, riboflavin, zinc, calcium and potassium. Birch water tastes like a super fresh and delicious glass of crystal clear water with only a rare hint of sweet if you look for it.
When the sap is running, the tree is actually pulling the sap from its roots all the way up to the top of the tree to feed its leaf buds which is an amazing anti-gravitational feat in itself.
Birch water goes bad within a couple of days, even in the fridge, so it needs to be consumed fresh. Alternatively, you can freeze it (even in ice cube trays) and save some frozen birch water to consume later in the year. The tapping of one tree will produce a lot of birch water, so be careful not to tap more than you can consume.
Very few of us will boil down the sap we collect to make birch syrup. We leave that to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and their crew who are currently very busy, working around the clock, collecting sap from about 1500 trees and preparing Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup to supply us all with the sweet stuff for the upcoming year.
My birch syrup supply is down to the last cupful. We are consuming about 1 litre of birch syrup per week! So I decided to boil down some sap and see if I could supplement our supply until the end of syrup season when we can get our next 12 L bucket from Sylvia and Berwyn’s birch camp.
Birch syrup and maple syrup, although both sweet, are quite different in both taste and components. Birch syrup contains fructose, the sugar in fruit, and it does not crystallize like maple syrup does. Maple syrup contains sucrose, the sugar in table sugar. One of the major differences between the two is the sugar content of the sap. It takes twice as much birch sap to make a litre of birch syrup, compared to making maple syrup. In fact the ration of birch sap to syrup is an astounding 80:1!
What does that look like in real life? I took my two largest pots and boiled down 14 litres of birch water. All that sap produced a scant ¾ cup of syrup!
A big thank you to the birch trees for sharing some your sap and to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and crew for all the hard work that goes into turning it into syrup!
If you haven’t yet tasted birch syrup, you really must. It is delicious! When using birch syrup in recipes, I find I don’t miss the absence of other spices such as cinnamon or allspice. Check out the many recipes using birch syrup on our Recipe Page.
As the leaf buds start to turn green, the sap will take on a bitter taste, marking the end of the tapping season for another year.
The Yukon River ice broke yesterday around 1:30 p.m. officially marking Dawson’s transition into Spring!
Every year the The Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire (IODE) hold an ice pool in Dawson to guess the exact date and time that the ice will break up. The charity splits the proceeds of the pool 50/50 with the winner. And there is almost always someone who guesses it to the minute!
Once the ice clears (usually in about a week) the George Black Ferry will be launched and folks will once again be able to cross the river in their vehicles.
Good news for me as it means I can re-stock my dwindling potato supply from the root cellar at Kokopellie Farm on the far side of the Yukon River!
It’s something Dawson City hasn’t seen since the 1930’s — local dairy products for sale. Klondike Valley Creamery, a dairy farm in Rock Creek, on the far side of the Klondike River, has been raising the first dairy cows the region has seen in almost 80 years. And now the Creamery’s first dairy products have just arrived on grocery store shelves in Dawson.
Products for sale at the Dawson City General Store include a delicious onion-and-dill cheese spread and, for those with a sweet tooth, Mocha Labneh — the nutella of dairy products. Each container is labelled with the names of the cows who donated their milk for the cause!
The Creamery is planning to have more local Dawson dairy products after this year’s river break-up.
Two of the many awesome women farmers in Dawson are Diana McCready of Emu Creek Farms and Maryanne Davis of Tundarose Garden. Both produce succulent crops of delicious berries – saskatoons, haskaps, raspberries and black currents. Emu Creek Farms even grows some northern cherries! Diana and Ron McCready have the added challenge of having no road access to their farm, it is only accessible by boat.
Northern Cherries and domestic Haskap berries at Emu Creek Farm. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
A late June frost wiped out many of the wild berries that we normally count on. We will be forever grateful to the many Dawsonites who donated some of their precious wild berry stock to help supplement our year. Wild low bush cranberries are a family favourite!
Fortunately, although the wild berry crop was meek, domestic berries thrived!
When Art Napoleon found he had to cook a selection of wild and cultivated ingredients from a local food “mystery box” over a campfire with three Indigenous Yukon Elders, he said, “Oh no! You’re going to gang up on me.” He had reason to be fearful—Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Mary Jane Moses, Teetl’it Gwich’in Elder Dorothy Alexie, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Peggy Kormandy are all experienced campfire cooks with many years of cooking on the land behind them.
But as participants at “Our Camp is our Kitchen” learned, when it comes to campfire cooking Napoleon is no slouch. He and the ladies transformed the ptarmigan, rabbit, caribou guts, caribou meat, sheep ribs, wild rhubarb, cranberries, birch syrup and a host of other delicacies into soup, stew, fricassee, viande grillée and pudding that fed anywhere from 75 to 100 people. Their cooking fire burned in an galvanized metal drum with a grill set over top; their camp was a wall tent and a tarp shelter in the parking lot beside the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Community Hall.
The event was part of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Myth and Medium Conference, held from February 19 to 23 in Dawson City. Napoleon was a special guest at the conference, and the organizers worked him from morning till night, calling several of his skills into play. He arrived Monday afternoon, gave the opening keynote address that evening, cooked all day Tuesday, performed a concert Tuesday evening, gave a talk on food and nutrition Wednesday morning and flew out Wednesday afternoon.
As Napoleon told the audience Monday night, he juggles several careers–singer-songwriter, educator, conservationist, naturalist. He holds an MA in Language Revitalization from the University of Victoria and is a former Chief of the Saulteau First Nation in north-eastern BC. Most recently, he’s co-host of APTN’s Moosemeat and Marmalade with British chef Dan Hayes — an exploration of two very different approaches to cooking wild game, the Indigenous and the classically trained.
Food and cooking are the sinews that tie much of Napoleon’s life and work together. He first learned how to cook on open fires and woodstoves as a child living in Peace River country, and later grew comfortable in modern cooking facilities. He has always loved cooking for people, and one of his approaches to cooking traditional food is to “gourmet it up.”
“It’s given me great pleasure to serve good food to people, especially if I can present traditional food in ways that people haven’t tasted,” he said. “If you want to show the beauty of your culture, food is one way to do that.”
Napoleon said that at heart he’s an educator, and cultural revitalization is a cornerstone of his life philosophy. “So food is something that fits in there nicely. Food and philosophy and cultural teachings—I don’t really see much difference between those.”
Napoleon, who lives in Victoria, advised people on how to “Indigenize their diet” in an urban context. In his talk on food, nutrition and planning on Wednesday morning he reminded the audience, “If you live in the city there’s lots of ways you can still access your traditional resources.” He goes back to his traditional territory to hunt; he receives packages of wild food from his family; he learns what wild foods grow in his area and goes out foraging. “I can still be an Indian down there, I don’t have to be a Victorian.”
Napoleon also suggested ways of incorporating better nutrition into modern diets, noting that on the land, “People ate clean and they were very active. They were in great shape. Our meats were the original free range organic meats.” Today, he said, “The food industry sucks. It’s all about the money. You’ve got to make it all about health, and make your own choices.”
The reality is that Indigenous people live in two worlds, he added, and even hunters supplement their traditional diet with store-bought foods. “They’ve just become part of the culture.” He laughed. “Red Rose tea is part of the culture!”
He admires Suzanne for her efforts to eat only local food for a year, calling her endeavour “either crazy or brave, and maybe a little bit of both. I think it’s a lot of work, and would take great, great discipline.”
But he shares one of Suzanne’s concerns, mentioned in her presentation on Tuesday evening: how sustainable is her diet? Napoleon asked, “If everybody wanted to do it…would things get over-harvested? What kind of impact would it have on the land? Long ago people managed it in a way that was sustainable, but now there are bigger populations.”
These are questions shared and pondered across Canada and around the world: how do we feed ourselves in a sustainable manner? When the population will potentially reach 9.7 billion by 2050?
As Indigenous people who live in two cultures, Napoleon said, “There’s no way we can survive as an island. That’s the great thing about the Yukon–the divide is not so wide as it is in Souther Canada.” He ended his Wednesday morning talk on an emotional note. “You guys are lucky,” he said, near tears. “You guys who are living in territories that are bringing [the traditions] back.”
Napoleon said he always likes to contribute food for thought in his work. Asked what he would like people to take away from his participation at Myth and Medium, he reflected for a minute and said, “The need for balance. Always remembering that we walk in two worlds, and there’s ways to return to your cultural integrity while still living in these modern times.”
It is the middle of winter and in my hand I hold a crunchy, juicy, sweet, locally-grown apple. Yes, that’s right, locally grown – in Dawson City, Yukon – 64 degrees north. Further north than Iqualuit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
It is all thanks to the ingenuity of John Lenart at Klondike Valley Nursery, Canada’s northernmost nursery. John has spent the last thirty years studying and grafting apple trees in order to cultivate varieties that can withstand the climate of the north. The nursery now has 65 cultivars and some of those varieties are ‘winter apples’ – meaning that they keep well in cold storage throughout the winter.
2017 was a tough season on the apple trees due to a late frost in the middle ofJune. But Klondike Valley Nursery has generously been sharing some of their personal apple supply with me for this year of eating local. And I can tell you that a crunchy locally-grown apple in the middle of winter is a treat beyond all measure!
Every second year, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in Dawson City, Yukon, hosts a colloquium/conference entitled Myth and Medium. The theme in 2018 was Food, Culture, and Identity, so not surprisingly, given her First We Eat project, Suzanne was asked to be one of the contributors to the event.
The week-long celebration kicked off on Monday with a potluck dinner, where attendees were invited to bring a dish that helped denote their heritage or identity. (Suzanne’s contribution to the potluck was her 100% locally-sourced garlic chevre on rye crackers.) But the evening’s main course was the collection of food-centered stories that followed by various guest speakers, including Suzanne and her husband Gerard.
The next day the official presentations began, given by a collection of notable speakers, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, including luminaries like Art Napoleon and Lawrence Hill, to name just a couple. Participating in a session entitled The Land Sustains Us, Suzanne paid tribute to those in the local community whose wisdom and aid have made her local-only experience possible. The audience was also treated to a preview snippet from Suzanne’s film, with very favourable crowd reaction.
Other Myth and Medium 2018 sessions touched on a wide variety of subjects, as one would expect from something as fundamental and far-reaching as food. From looking at wild plants for food and medicine — and a way to reconnect with traditional values — to finding what ancient stories can teach us about our food, the speakers were diverse, knowledgeable, and thought-provoking.
The next two afternoons saw Suzanne at a booth and doing hands-on cooking demonstrations and tastings of some of the things she has learned during her journey — from using colts foot ash as a salt substitute, to frying up burbot liver to help boost her Vitamin D levels.
Myth and Medium wasn’t all business. The event, which told attendees to: “Bring your dancing shoes and your appetites,” included lots of feasting, music, laughter, and activities. One of the highlights was the outdoor campfire, where there was cooking of all manner of wild local meat, including some rarer fare, such as moose nose, lynx, and a local ‘haggis’ made by stuffing a caribou stomach.
Ultimately though, the conference proved the old adage (although perhaps on several new levels as well), that we are what we eat.
I definitely did not have a green thumb prior to starting this project. Never ask me to take care of your house plant. I’m not sure my thumb is yet brilliant green, but it is several shades closer than it used to be.
So this year I am excited to pull out the seed catalogues and decide what to order for the upcoming growing season. In the North, tomato seeds are started indoors the end of February and most everything else gets started indoors in March and April.
As you get ready to dog-ear pages in your seed catalogues, check out the seeds that have proven themselves to grow well for other Northerners on the First We Eat Seeds page. And if you have some favourites that grow well in your part of the North, let us know (there’s a contribution form on the page) and we will share it .
Here are my seed ordering tips for 2018:
Fothergill’s Perpetual Spinach. Spinach is notoriously difficult to grow in Dawson. Sure we have a short season. But our short summers are really hot! And regular spinach just bolts up here. Both New Zealand Spinach and Fothergill’s Perpetual Spinach grow well in Dawson and do not bolt. I tried them both last year, but preferred the texture of Fothergills.
My favourite tomato last year was Black Prince.
And while you’re at it, consider growing some GMO-free sugar beets. They grew well in several locations in Dawson last year. They are a delicious white beet to eat and the pot liquor you cook them in can be boiled down to make a sweet syrup!
Salt Spring Seeds, based on Vancouver Island, only carries organic, non-GMO seeds and is your one-stop shop for Fothergills Perpetual Spinach, Black Prince tomatoes, and non-GMO sugar beet seeds!
My three kids have been desperately missing bagels. And toast.
You might recall that last winter, in anticipation of this, I experimented with sourdough rye and barley bread – with mixed results.
Our first three months of eating local were entirely grain free. Then, against many odds, a successful crop of wheat and rye was harvested just as winter started to blanket Dawson with snow. Shortly thereafter I found a way to grind the grains and the miracle of flour re-entered our diet.
I have no yeast. But sourdough starter has been around the Dawson area for over one hundred years – introduced during the Klondike Gold Rush. In fact, there are Yukoners who continue to feed sourdough starter from the Gold Rush days. With regular feeding, you can keep it indefinitely. Therefore, I decided to classify it as a ‘local’ ingredient.
But I wondered – could you actually make a sourdough starter from scratch, from 100% local Dawson fare? Bev Gray’s “The Boreal Herbal” held a clue – juniper berries. I thought I would give it a try.
I started with 1 tbsp of flour from wheat grown at Kokopellie Farm, added to that 1 tbsp of Klondike River water and about 5 dried juniper berries that I had picked in the Fall. I mixed them all in a small clear glass – so that I could easily see any remote chance of bubbling– a successful sign of fermentation. I covered the glass loosely and let it sit in a warm place. I wasn’t very optimistic. When I checked on it later I was rather shocked to see those wonderful bubbles appearing within the mixture! Now sourdough starter truly is a local ingredient!
I continued to feed the starter for a few days until it seemed quite active and then proceeded to make a loaf of sourdough bread. For my first attempt, I decided to be decadent and use only freshly ground wheat flour – no rye. And it worked! Beginner’s luck perhaps, as it was the best batch I have made to date. Subsequent batches have varied between bricks requiring chainsaws to slice them and slightly more palatable varieties.
Bread dough is like a living organism and sourdough bread even more so. Every time I make it, it comes out differently. It has become a luxury (depending if it is a good batch or a brick batch), not a staple. But great to know that, even starting the sourdough starter from scratch – a 100 % local Dawson bread is possible!
Using all parts of the moose or caribou is important when you are harvesting food from the land. This is one of the many lessons I have been learning during my year of eating local. For Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elders, the delicacies are not the moose steaks or the moose roasts, but the often-overlooked parts of the moose: moose nose, moose tongue, moose head soup, moose heart, moose liver, kidneys, and bum guts. Yup, I said bum guts. Part of the large intestine (cleaned well!) and cooked. I am venturing into the world of moose delicacies. Stay tuned… Victor and his Moosemeat Men will be cooking up a feast for the upcoming Myth and Medium conference, organized by the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin Heritage Department, and taking place in Dawson City, Yukon from February 19 to 22, 2018.
Happy Solstice everyone – the shortest day of the year a.k.a. the longest night. It only gets brighter from here!
For two days the North Klondike Highway has been closed due to unseasonably warm weather causing black ice and massive frost heaves. This means that my community of Dawson City, as well as the communities of Mayo, Fort MacPherson and Inuvik, are all cut off from the rest of Canada. No road in. No road out. No grocery trucks. No mail. Ten days before Christmas.
Air North, the only airline that links our communities to Whitehorse and hence, the rest of Canada, has managed to squeeze in extra flights during the short window of December daylight, to help transport the many people who are now unable to drive south. But this is not a panacea. Yesterday the plane couldn’t land in Dawson due to bad weather. Some folks won’t get a seat on the plane for another four days. And although the planes can transport people, they can’t supply Dawson and Inuvik with groceries.
So here it is, another reminder of our particular vulnerability in the North. It’s not the first time. It happened on an even larger scale in 2012 when the only road into all of the Yukon was closed due to mudslides – causing the shelves of the many large grocery stores in the Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, to go bare within a couple of days.
There is no doubt we are seeing the effects of climate change around the world, and especially in the North.
Dawson’s average temperature this time of year should be minus 20° to minus 30° C. For the past two weeks we have had temperatures ranging from plus 2° to minus 10°C. Whitehorse has had above zero temperatures and rain.
This is the second year that the Yukon River has failed to freeze between Dawson and West Dawson. Without an ice bridge, the journey to town for West Dawsonites for supplies is now 12 km instead of 2 km – and currently only passable by foot, skidoo, or dog team.
These are quickly becoming the new norms in the North. Another poignant reminder of the importance of increasing our self-sufficiency and our food security. The importance of lessening our dependence on infrastructure that links us to the south. The reason why I am putting myself to the test and feeding my family of five only food that can be sourced locally for one full year.
I, of course, have enough food to get me through. Many others have freezers full of moose meat. Hopefully, the highway will soon re-open and this event will be considered a mild inconvenience in the memories of many. But should we pass it off so casually? Is it actually the canary in the coal mine. And rather than a temporary inconvenience, a foreshadowing of things to come. A memory that should inspire adaptation and change.
Many studying global food security suggest the answer will be in the development of more local, small-scale organic farms and growers. I agree. And I believe this will be especially important for Northern Canada along with a renewed understanding of what we can source locally from the land. The less we need to rely on ‘one road in, one road out’ the better off we will be.
The Christmas season has arrived – a season for many wonderful things, not the least of which is Christmas baking. Holiday baking traditions in my family are melt-in-your-mouth shortbread and rum-soaked fruit cake that has aged for 6-12 months.
This year is a little different.
My family recently headed to Whitehorse for various sporting events (and two days of eating contraband!) So I took advantage of the empty house and settled in for a two-day Christmas baking extravaganza. Although it might be better described as a two-day Christmas baking science lab.
What is unusual about this year’s baking, is that it is all experimental. No white flour, no white sugar, no icing sugar, no baking powder nor baking soda nor corn starch. No salt. No nuts. No chocolate. No candied orange and lemon peel. No raisins. No currents. No cinnamon, ginger or cloves. I pulled out my traditional recipes for short bread, ginger snaps, aspen rocks and fruit cake and attempted to adapt them to the local ingredients I have on hand. I pulled out old dusty copies of December editions of Chatelaine and Canadian Living and scoured them for recipes that might suit my ingredients. I have yet to find a recipe for just my ingredients, so adaptations, substitutions and imagination have taken over.
I am extremely grateful for the ingredients I do have available. Thanks to the hard work of Dawson farmers, and the abundance of edibles the Boreal forest can provide, there will be 100%-local Christmas baking in my house this year!
I now have flour (thanks Otto) and sugar beet sugar (thanks Grant, Becky, and Paulette). I also have butter (thanks Jen), eggs (thanks Megan and Becky), birch syrup (thanks Sylvia and Berwyn), honey (thanks David) and berries (thanks Diana, Maryanne, the forest and the many Dawsonites who shared some of their precious wild berries with me this year). I have potato starch (thanks Lucy, Otto, Tom, Brian and Claus). I have a few winter hearty apples (thanks John and Kim). I have dried spruce tips (thanks forest) and dried nysturtiam seed pods (thanks Andrea and Klondike Kate’s).
Of course, experimenting is also limited by quantity. Every ingredient I have has been hard fought for. The sugar takes several days to create from sugar beets. The butter takes several days to make from the cream skimmed off the fresh milk. And before I have flour, I need to clean the grains and then grind them. Whereas I once automatically doubled or tripled recipes for Christmas baking, this year I find myself cutting every recipe in half. I have become leery of recipes that call for 2 cups of sugar for example – as that would use up almost all the sugar I have on hand before starting the arduous task of processing more sugar beets.
Mixing and matching, substituting, altering quantities – such is the alchemy behind Christmas baking this year.
But many have been less than desirable. My friend Bridget dropped by during my baking frenzy and sampled some of my experiments. “You can’t call these cookies,” she announced after tasting one of my shortbread trials. I was deflated. “But you can call them biscuits.” She then proceeded to lather some butter onto one of my cookies and declared it quite good. After I got over my moment of self-pity, I too tried one with butter and then with cream cheese and had to admit she was right. They taste more like oatcakes (without the oats). So sweet biscuits they are. The recipe included here for Yukon Shortbread did, however, pass the cookie test.
My family has now returned from Whitehorse and I will bring out the results of my baking bit by bit to see what they think. The experimenting will continue – adjusting this and adjusting that. Trying a few new recipes. But first … I have to make some more butter, grind some more flour, and peel some more sugar beets.
If you have any Christmas baking recipes that you think might adapt well to my local ingredients, I would be more than happy to have you share them!
I love birch syrup and am grateful to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson who are raising their two daughters in the bush and producing birch syrup commercially. During the past 4 ½ months of eating only local foods, we have consumed 24 litres of birch syrup. I have discovered that the flavour of birch syrup alone can substitute for the ‘far east’ spices of cinnamon and all-spice. I have even been known to down a shot of birch syrup, straight up, during those moments when, in a previous life, I would have grabbed a piece of chocolate – to get me through a moment of emotional or physical despair.
I also love David McBurney’s local honey – it is pure, delicate, and divine. And it is treated like a delicacy in the family. It also makes the perfect sweetener to enhance other delicate flavours that would be overpowered by the robust flavour of birch syrup.
But there are times, especially in baking, when chemistry is required and a liquid sugar option just doesn’t do the trick. Now that I have local flour, and Christmas is coming, baking is on my mind. So what to do when crystalized sugar is required?
Birch syrup, unlike maple syrup, does not crystalize. I learned this last April while visiting Birch Camp. So, with birch sugar no longer an option, I ordered GMO-free sugar beet seeds. I have never had any luck growing regular beets, so I recruited others to grow the sugar beets for me – the great gardeners Paulette Michaud and Becky Sadlier. Unbeknownst to me, long-time Dawson farmer, Grant Dowdell, also had my year of eating local on his mind and ordered non-GMO sugar beet seeds to see if they would grow in the north. The sugar beets grew marvelously for all, confirming that they are indeed a reasonable crop for the North. They like warm days and cool nights – perfect for a Dawson City summer. I ended up with 350 pounds worth to experiment with!
Sugar beets contain approximately 20% sucrose, the same sugar found in sugar cane. One quarter of the world’s refined sugar comes from sugar beets. In Canada, Taber, Alberta is the industrial hot spot for growing and processing sugar beets into sugar. On a commercial scale, lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide are added to form calcium carbonate which solidifies and pulls out any impurities – thus resulting in familiar white sugar. No such additions for a local home-made sugar, so the resulting sugar is brown with a richer taste.
There is a paucity of information out there on just how to make sugar from sugar beets at home, so I gave up on research and moved to trial and error. After all, with 350 pounds of sugar beets, there was room for experimentation and failure. And failure there has been! Although no failure has yet to see itself in the compost. The family seems more than willing to devour the failures – be they sugar beet toffee, sugar beet gum, sugar beet tea. Even burnt beet sugar has found a use. (Thank goodness because there has been a lot of burnt beet sugar!)
In the process, I have also discovered the wonder of the sugar beet – a root vegetable that was previously unknown to me. Sugar beets are often touted as a food for livestock or a green manure crop so I was expecting the taste of the sugar beet itself to be unpalatable. But it is just the opposite! Cooked up, it is a delicious, sweet, white beet. The sugar beet leaves are also edible. And amazingly, even after the sugar is extracted, the sugar beet pulp remains sweet and delicious. I’m afraid the local Dawson livestock will be getting less sugar beet pulp than previously anticipated this year.
One thing is for certain – processing sugar beets into sugar requires time and patience. Here are my step-by-step instructions on how to make syrup (easy) and sugar (difficult) from sugar beets.
Sugar was first extracted from sugar beets in the mid 18th century. In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars when French ports were cut off from the rest of the world, Napoleon encouraged wide-scale sugar beet production and processing. France remains one of the world leaders in sugar beet production and most of Europe’s sugar comes from sugar beets, rather than sugar cane.
Consider adding non-GMO sugar beet seeds to your next seed order. In Canada, they can be found from Salt Spring Seeds and from T&T seeds. Sugar beets grow well in the north and are a delicious root vegetable in their own right. But don’t throw out the water you cook them in, as this water is sweet and can easily be used to make beet syrup and beet syrup candy. And, if you are brave, sugar! If you live in an area populated by deer, be warned that sugar beet tops are a great attractant for deer. Word is now out to the Yukon moose so perhaps next year Dawson’s sugar beet rows will require fencing!
One of the favourite supper recipes was Pork Hock Rye Casserole, although it doesn’t have to include pork hocks – it is adaptable to any slow cooking meat. And the rye could easily be substituted with barley (once I thresh it) and probably even with wheat grains (although I think I will preserve every precious grain of wheat for baking!) This, like Rappie Pie, is another excellent one dish winter comfort food – filling, delicious and 100% Dawson City local!
Despite a very cold November, with several weeks of -35° to -40°C, it looks like it is going to be a long freeze-up for the Yukon River again this year. I am lucky enough to have 25 kg. of wheat grains and 25 kg. of rye grains that were secured from Otto at Kokopellie Farm just before the ferry was pulled. But Otto’s wonderful grinder is on the other side of the Yukon River. So, for now, I am left to my own devices.
I tried to grind the grain with a combination of blender and flour sifter. It took many, many passes. It was possible to eke out a small amount of flour, but certainly not very efficient.
Although Dawson is small (about 1,500 people), it is the kind of community where you can put out a request for an obscure item, such as flour grinder, on the local Crier Buyer Facebook page and expect to get a response.
I was not disappointed.
Within a day, I was very grateful to receive a call from Louise Piché. She had a hand crank flour grinder, not yet tried, that she had picked up somewhere or other and I was welcome to borrow it. A flour grinder is a wonderful thing! A couple of passes through the grinder along with a bit of an upper body workout and voilà – flour! Flour!! Flour means the possibility of bread and baking!
We have flour!
Subsequently, I received another call – this time from Becky Sadlier who has an electric flour mill that we could borrow. However Becky lives on the other side of the Klondike River, now filled with slush. But Yukoners are never too daunted by the weather. Loren Sadlier was making one last canoe trip across the Klondike, through the slush, and the grinder could go with him. I had thought the hand grinder was a gift from the heavens. The electric grinder was able to make an even finer flour!
There are still a few obstacles to overcome, such as the lack of yeast, baking soda, baking powder and crystalized sugar. But where there is a will, there is a way. Let the baking experiments begin! (And let me remember my lesson in grain moderation! )
Miche Genest sent me this wonderful breakfast option, Breakfast Caflouti, which only requires ½ cup of flour and no leavening agent. It was a tremendous hit in our family – and a very welcome change from our usual fried eggs and mashed potato cakes.
Grains have now entered my local diet. And, unfortunately, I did not heed the concept of moderation with their re-introduction.
Spending almost four months entirely grain free was very interesting. Certainly, it was the one food that haunted me. When I ventured outside my house, the smell or sight of baking was associated with a sense of longing. Plates of bannock at Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in feasts, the smell of Nora Van Bibber’s cinnamon buns at Fall Harvest Camp, the desert table at potluck dinners, the baking at Christmas bazaars – those were the difficult times. Those were the times when I realized how important it was that my family agreed to the ‘no grocery store food in the house’ policy. I do have will power, but I’m not sure how much.
I have also come to realize how much grains contribute to a sense of being full. Without them, potatoes help fill the gap. As does a mug of steamed milk. In the absence of grains, these have become my go-to’s when I need a quick snack. Mashed potato cakes have become the morning staple to replace toast, bagels, or cereal. I have really become quite fond of them and haven’t yet tired of eating them almost every morning.
At the start of this local diet, there was an almost instant melting away of extra pounds. Gerard’s weight loss was the most noticeable, losing 30 pounds during the first two months! Was this due to being grain free? The other unexpected result of eating local was a distinct lack of body odour. Could that also have to do with being grain free? Have those folks who live a gluten free existence noticed the same phenomena?
When Yukon chef, Miche Genest, came to stay with us last week I had to clean up the grains that had been drying in the loft floor so that Miche would have a place to sleep. The barley is not yet threshed. And I haven’t figured out how to de-husk the buckwheat or hull the oats. But thanks to Otto and his combine, the wheat and the rye were threshed and just waiting for me to find a way to grind them. So, one evening, when 12-year-old Tess started talking about how much she yearned for a bowl of cereal, I came up with an idea. Why not boil the whole rye grains! And so Tess did. Accompanied by warm milk, the first mouthful was an extremely comforting and satisfying experience. All my grain longings seemed to come to the forefront as I ate spoonful after spoonful. Somewhere in the logical side of my brain was a small voice suggesting that downing a giant bowl of cooked whole rye might not be the best way to re-introduce grains after four months without. But I couldn’t stop. So I ate the whole bowl. I had a fitful sleep that night. For the next 2 days, I felt like there was a brick in my stomach. I produced enough gas to power our house. Short-term gain for long-term pain. Lesson learned. I will attempt a more moderate re-introduction once I recover from this one.
It is harvest season and, in Dawson City, the end of the Farmers’ Markets. It is a good opportunity to get what’s left of the fresh veggies before the winter sets in. It is also a good time to launch our #FirstWeEatChallenge, a fun way in which everyone can help Suzanne come up with ideas to add to her locally-sourced menu.
Suzanne has been eating only 100% local foods for 51 days now, and it has been a real eye-opening experience.
Think you could do it? Perhaps you already do eat mostly local fare. If you want to show your solidarity for Suzanne’s year, or just see for yourself how challenging or how easy it really is, we invite you to try preparing just one meal with only foods local to your community. Alternatively, check out the list of local Dawson City ingredients and make a “Dawson Local” meal.
It would be ideal if you could stick to the same 100%-local-only standard as Suzanne for finding substitutes for salt, oil and spices, but we understand if that’s not feasible. Either way, we trust that everyone’s creativity will blow us away.
Come take the challenge, and share it with us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook using the hashtag #FirstWeEatChallenge, or send it to us via email . If you want, you can include the recipe for your dish so Suzanne can try it at home, with any necessary adjustments. We’ll then include it on our Recipes Page.
Your foraging adventures not only can help you stock your pantry with wild goodies, but they could also get you a delicious free lunch!
The North Woods Cookshop and Lunchbox, a Dawson City based catering company, is looking for generous foragers to share a bit of their spruce tip loot with them. For every four cups of spruce tips you bring them, they will treat you to a free lunch at their amazing new food truck, located in the lot next to the Westminster Hotel.
They have great plans for those spruce tips, including delicious syrups for their homemade sodas, as well as the spice mixes, rubs and gourmet salts they are known for.
Hurry up before the picking season ends, and remember to spread your harvest out over many trees to keep them healthy and strong. Georgia and Allie will thank you!
David McBurney’s honey bees have survived the winter!
Bees have been successfully overwintered in southern Yukon, but it has been trickier to achieve in the Dawson area due to big temperature fluctuations in March/April, when it can be +20C in the afternoon heat of the sun and -20C at night. David and the bee’s success this winter means Suzanne should be able to add a bit of honey to her local diet for this upcoming year.
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.
Louise Piché is experimenting growing ginger this year – by planting a piece of ginger root from the grocery store. So far it’s doing well!
Did you know you can re-grow other vegetables from what you buy in the grocery store? Apparently, you can re-grow celery, romaine lettuce and even herbs like mint and basil. All it takes is a little patience!
Have you re-grown any store bought veggies at home? How did it go?
Take advantage of your greenhouse in April and May, before you plant your tomatoes and cucumbers, to give you an early crop of spinach or Asian greens! Riley Brennan, of Dawson City, direct seeds spinach in her greenhouse as soon as the soil thaws in April. She leaves the greenhouse unheated and the seedlings don’t require any covering. By the time she goes to plant her greenhouse proper in late May, she has a crop of baby spinach to harvest.
Next weekend, Dawsonites will have a chance to participate in two amazing workshops!
Seedy Saturdays will be held on Saturday March 25th at the Recreation Centre, and it will include presentations by Karen Digby and Grant Dowdell about northern gardening and by Scott Henderson about mushroom cultivation.
The following day on Sunday the 26th, there will be a Birch Syrup workshop in which participants will meet at the Rec Centre and then go hunting for Birch sap.
There are limited spaces on both, so make sure you sign up soon!
If there is something exotic you wish to grow in the North, ask Louise Piché of Rock Creek, Dawson City, Yukon. Louise is a well known gardener in Dawson and a frequent ribbon winner at Dawson’s annual Discovery Days Horticultural Fair. She loves experimenting with new and colorful varieties. She has successfully grown peanuts and ground cherries (aka golden berries) as well as asparagus, giant pumpkins and buckwheat.
Louise has generously shared her ‘tried and true’ cultivars that grow well in Rock Creek, which you can view on our seed page. This year she is experimenting with ginger, turmeric, artichokes and pink potatoes.
The CBC morning radio show “A New Day” hosted by Sandi Coleman on CBC Yukon, has started a new regular column called “Yu-kon Grow It”, which will air every other Wednesday morning between 7 and 7:30 am. On this segment, Sandi will check in with Suzanne about her “First we Eat: Food Security North of 60” project, as well as featuring other Yukoners involved in local food issues such as Miche Genest and other guests.
Sandi Coleman will next check in with Suzanne on Wednesday March 8th, between 7.00 and 7.30 am on CBC Radio Yukon.
Don’t forget to tune in!
You can listen to the first interview with Suzanne and Elyn Jones here,
Suzanne, new to the world of sourdough baking, has been experimenting with sourdough bread using store-bought rye flour (before she uses Otto’s precious rye and barley flour from Kokopellie Farm, in Sunnydale). She has also added Yukon’s own Uncle Berwyn’s birch syrup and water. No salt!
Yup! Suzanne has been munching on sweet & crunchy carrots from Kokopellie Farm all January. “They taste like they are freshly picked only even sweeter!” offers Suzanne.
Otto Muehlbach, whose farm is in Sunnydale (Dawson), has designed a large root cellar to store carrots, potatoes, cabbage, beets, and other root veggies all winter long. The trick seems to be 2-4 degrees C and keeping the humidity and condensation low. If you can find a way to get to Sunnydale, Otto’s fresh root vegetables are sold from his house on Saturdays between 2 and 5 pm as long as it is warmer than -30C.