by Miche GenestOne 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.
by Miche GenestWhen 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.”
by Miche GenestOn 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? > Click here for a recipe for birch syrup shortbreads. Follow the story of the Roskes’s grain growing adventures on their Facebook page, @sunnysidefarmyukon
Many northern Canadian communities do not have the luxury of the rich soil found in southern Yukon. This is the case for the fly-in community of Arviat, (population 2,800) – the second largest community in Nunavut.In 2014 Arviat built a greenhouse beside the school to see if they could grow their own vegetables with local soil and local fertilizer. And they have been very successful! Continue reading “Arviat Goes Green”