I’ll admit, I’d never thought much about the food in the Yukon until her publisher sent me a review copy of Michele Genest’s The Boreal Gourmet: Adventures in Northern Cooking. So much of the good food revolution in Canada is tied to agriculture and iconic, Arcadian regions like the Annapolis Valley, Le Charlevoix, Niagara and the Okanogan. It’s easy to forget that there is a world of food in this country beyond big tilled fields of the south.
In person, Genest is warm and low key. She’s a food columnist for Up Here, a Yukon magazine, where she covers the down to earth culinary scene. Over a coffee on the patio of a busy Toronto cafe, she explained to me the three components that make the Yukon food scene unique and special: 1) the proliferation of market gardens, 2) an ingrained culture of berry picking and 3) the abundance of game. There you have it: hunting, gathering and small scale agriculture all wrapped together. Her book celebrates all three traditions, as well as the ever necessary preservation techniques needed to get through the long cold northern winters.
Genest is a transplanted Torontonian, who ended up in Whitehorse about 15 years ago after an extended stay in Greece, where she became aware of the pleasures of the table and local food. In the north, she explains, “every one is very conscious of the fact that a lot of our food comes in a truck.” That awareness is amplified by the high cost of fresh foods. As a result the proportion of people with backyard gardens is higher in Whitehorse or Dawson City than in southern cities. And although the growing season is short, the near endless summer days mean much food can be grown in the warm season.
Berry picking has a special place in Yukon society, according to Genest. “It’s a cultural element!” she says smiling, “Everybody picks berries – it’s a social occasion.” Boreal Gourmet includes pictures and recipes using the fruits of the north. In this sense the book is fascinating, proving Michael Pollan’s edict that “food is culture”. The recipes tell the story of the place they come from, and Boreal Gourmet reminds me of the work of Anita Stewart in its dedication to sense of that place.
“I’ll admit I didn’t have a lot of respect for hunters, when I first came to Whitehorse,” Genest confides. That big city attitude changed, she explains, when she saw how hunters respected their game and used every part of the animal, invariably sharing their prize with friends, family and neighbours. Boreal Gourmet includes recipes for caribou and mountain goat.
Boreal Gourmet is a wonderfully romantic book abut the Yukon its people and what they eat (if they’re lucky enugh to dine with Michele Genest, anyway). Its also a practical book, with all kinds of Klondike sprited tips, about making your own sausages, or making bread from wild yeast. More books like this need to be written and read.
Malcolm Jolley is the managing editor of Good Food Revolution. Follow his twitty ramblings at twitter.com/malcolmjolley.