Stallholder Richard Beaudoin’s face lights up when he sees cookbook author Michele Genest shopping at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse, capital of Canada’s Yukon Territory. A blow-in from the eastern provinces who makes maple syrup products to sell at this vibrant little community market, Beaudoin leans across to tell Genest that he cooked her recipe for bison rib with maple syrup last winter.
“It was awesome … it’s a nice challenge to cook with Yukon stuff,” he tells Genest, herself a blow-in from the east a few decades earlier. Since arriving in Whitehorse in 1994, Genest has contributed probably more than anyone to putting Yukon food on the map. The author of The Boreal Gourmet explains to Beaudoin that the bison rib with maple syrup recipe is based on a mole sauce. “I could sell the book on the strength of that recipe,” she says.
Genest’s driving mission is to find new ways to cook with northern ingredients, drawing on her travels and her culinary knowledge to celebrate the Yukon bounty. The plants and animals that live and grow wild in the boreal forest, its lakes and rivers, the plants cultivated in Yukon farms and gardens – all are inspiration for her cooking and writing.
What a joy for me – a fellow food writer whose world is, literally, poles apart – to spend an afternoon and evening in the company of this delightful, enthusiastic food writer and cook, shopping with her, watching her work in her home kitchen, toasting each other with shots of haskap berry liqueur, dining on moose and caribou at her table.
Genest makes a rub for the meat from shaggy mane mushrooms found growing by the side of the road. “We pick them when they’re a little black and dry them in the dehydrator,” she says, pulverizing the dried fungi with a mortar and pestle before adding brown sugar and Vancouver Island smoked salt. She thinks the shaggy manes are superior to prized European truffles and there’s also a practical reason for their use. “You never know what part of the animal you’re going to get, so the rub really helps to tenderize it.”
Foraging in the forest
It had been a dream of mine to visit the Yukon ever since I first heard about this woman who forages in the forest for mushrooms and berries, preserving food for the winter and making her own bread with wild yeast. Despite the obvious harsh climate, it all sounded wonderfully romantic, and indeed it also sounded that way to Genest when she arrived from Toronto.
“I came in the spring, in April, and the whole world here was just opening up. It’s so beautiful. The air is like Champagne, the light is opening. It’s very magical. I was supposed to be here for four months to hang out with my sister.” She never looked back. “I just kept on getting opportunities I’d never had before.”
Ten years ago, she married her husband Hector and cooking became a shared passion. “I was writing food columns in magazines and suddenly I had enough material to at least have the core of a book. I spent $20 at a writer’s festival to have a pitch read, and the publisher chose mine. It was one of those amazing moments in life.”
The Boreal Gourmet: Adventures in Northern Cooking appeared in 2010 and has been an unqualified success, selling in Germany, Japan, France and across Canada. A bestseller in Sweden and the Yukon, people take it on camping trips so they can identify their finds. The Boreal Feast followed in 2014, the result of eight weeks spent travelling with Hector, “mostly in Sweden, less in Norway and not nearly enough in Finland”.
“I was really interested in travelling to other northern countries because they have some stuff we do. I wanted to see what was the same and what was different. In Scandinavia there is even more interest in berry picking and getting out into the woods than there is here. Even people who live in cities are interested in going out and picking.
“With the First Nations, it’s been very close to us, but in Scandinavia it never went away. That interest in foraging is deep and natural. Here, we’re living where First Nations people did for thousands of years but foraging is not ingrained in the population here. I imagined people would become more interested in foraging, and they have.”
Wild game on local menus
Soon after Genest produced The Boreal Gourmet, Beverley Gray produced The Boreal Herbal, further shining the spotlight on food foraging and igniting a consciousness that has encouraged a growing number of local restaurants and cafés to embrace the locavore concept. Upmarket restaurant, The Wheelhouse, features northern wild game alongside its steaks and ribs, while at Café Balzam on the outskirts of Whitehorse, chef Karina Lapointe is not only using Yukon game, she also picks ingredients from the woods. The Alpine Bakery buys local morelles and cranberries.
As well as an abundance of game, the Yukon has a proliferation of market gardens. Even the main street of Whitehorse has planter boxes filled with herbs that people can help themselves to. The high cost of fresh food being trucked in over long distances has resulted in a higher proportion of backyard gardens in Whitehorse and Dawson City than in southern cities. Although the climate might seem harsh because of the short growing season, long summer days produce a surprisingly bountiful crop.
At the Fireweed Market, named for the deep pink-purple plant that grows prolifically on Yukon roadsides, Genest introduced me to people like Kate Mechan and Bart Bounds, of Elemental Farm, an organic farm on the Takhini River Road producing 25 varieties of salad greens, carrots, turnips, beets, herbs, and greenhouse crops, as well as laying hens and farm broilers, turkeys and rabbits – all on under two acres!
Held on the Whitehorse waterfront on Thursdays from May to September, the Fireweed market has a happy community feel, with live entertainment, llamas and a donkey to amuse the kids, and stalls selling local produce, baked goods, elk and beef burgers, plants, and Yukon arts and crafts.
In between holding Kate and Bart’s baby and marvelling at their luscious-looking produce, Genest gathered up pea shoots, radishes, lovage, and garlic chives to take home for our feast. The lovage went into chilled potato and sorrel soup; the pea shoots, lovage and other greens into a salad dressed with pickled blackcurrants, birch syrup and olive oil.
After pouring me a cocktail of Yukon Brewing gin, spruce tip syrup, and spruce tip bitters, she left me to snack on potted smoked salmon and homemade crackers (flavoured with anise and fennel according to a Swedish recipe in her second book) while she got on with the job of cooking the moose and caribou. Served with a red wine reduction, the steaks were beautifully tender with a subtle game flavour. Genest admits she didn’t have a lot of respect for hunters when she came to Whitehorse, but that changed when she saw how they respect their game and use every part of the animal, sharing it with family and friends so there is no wastage.
Our feast finished with a flourish as Genest put a selection of treats on the table and invited her guests to build their own dessert. Rose petal meringues, birch syrup shortbreads, chocolate mocha mousse made with locally roasted Martha Black Midnight Sun coffee, crème brulee made with rhubarb syrup, cranberries soaked in rum and birch syrup, and then some more.
“Just one more liqueur!” she beckoned as I was about to leave. Genest’s own creation, the liqueur was made from brandy infused with mountain ash berries, a wondrous bright red fruit that is rich in vitamin C and provided protection against scurvy in times gone by. Thanks to her initiative, ingredients like these are once again making an appearance on Yukon tables.
Genest is one of the guest chefs at the Yukon Culinary Festival, an event that is held annually in August to showcase local ingredients and indigenous culture.
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