STYLE

Yukon Culinary Festival showcases homegrown food unique to territory

06/18/2013 04:53 EDT | Updated 08/18/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - When Toronto chef Christian Pritchard visited Yukon Territory last year, he was enraptured by the plethora of delicious and unusual ingredients and proposed the idea of a culinary festival to feature the bounty amid spectacular scenery.

Fast forward through months of organizing, and the Yukon Culinary Festival, which kicks off Thursday and runs through Monday, is giving residents and visitors a chance to sample local delicacies under the midnight sun.

"This is the first ever culinary festival of this magnitude in the Yukon, but more than that it's the first ever multi-day territory-wide culinary festival in all the territories north of 60 in Canada," Blake Rogers said in an interview from Whitehorse, where he's executive director for the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon.

The festival will feature gastronomic delicacies, cooking demonstrations and opportunities for foraging, all with an aim of promoting local food and products.

"A lot of people south of 60 don't know a lot about the culinary scene in the north," said Rogers, who moved to the area from Nova Scotia and acknowledges he too is still learning.

"To be honest, that's part of the reason why we really wanted to have Christian (Pritchard) come up and do a lot of the facilitation throughout the event is to kind of have it through the eyes of a visiting chef.

"What does the Yukon have to offer, to showcase that amazement and wonder, but also include local chefs to share their knowledge with Christian and to really capture all that and to showcase it for the rest of Canada."

As a self-described "city kid," Pritchard said he's eagerly anticipating the foraging event, hoping he'll find lots of great ingredients to cook with.

"When you're in food, as I am, food's always an ongoing education. ... Food is like music. Music has 12 notes. Look what comes from those 12 notes. In food we have many more notes to play," he said.

"The great thing is in the Yukon these notes are almost undiscovered in the people south of 60, but the sheer beauty of this territory, it's just mind-blowing."

He confesses to being delighted by such unique ingredients as wild game, spruce tips, berries and birch syrup. Rogers said there's an Arctic char fish farm in the area as well as jelly made from fireweed, the territory's flower. Apples are grown in the Dawson area.

"The thing that blows my mind is in Dawson City ... with the wild morels," Pritchard said by phone. "Morels which are so expensive for us to get south of 60, as they say, but (the mushrooms) grow rampantly up there and it's like I think the people in Dawson are searching for the wrong gold."

He's also been won over by the area's root vegetables. Growth in cold soil concentrates their sweetness.

"The best beets in the world I've had are from the Yukon. Unreal," exclaimed Pritchard, who lives in Brooklin, Ont., north of Whitby. He has a catering business and does product development and culinary tours.

"They have a really short growing season. But it's quite warm. People think it's arctic all the time. No way! It's in the 20s, sunny."

The culinary festival coincides with the June solstice, when the sun barely sleeps.

Organizers hope the ambitious multi-day, territory-wide event will become an annual affair.

It was originally conceived as being small, but it grew as various partners joined forces. Among them were the Yukon Outfitters Association, Yukon Historical and Museums Association, Yukon First Nations Tourism Association and Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture.

Another sponsor is Yukon Brewing, which uses local ingredients such as fireweed and honey in its craft beer.

Air North, whose in-flight kitchen serves local fare, including locally roasted coffee, is hosting a golf tournament that will take advantage of the lengthy days.

In the Midnight Sun Food Crawl, participating restaurants have been tasked to create at least two dishes made using a local ingredient and will stay open between 9 a.m. and 1 a.m. so that visitors can dine under the midnight sun.

The event overlaps with the June 21-27 Adaka Cultural Festival in Whitehorse, a First Nations event that has been running since 2011. It features a community feast and bannock-making contest along with drumming and dancing.

Pritchard, who has organized culinary tours to Italy and the Niagara wine region, said he hopes the event will attract Canadians to travel in their own country and experience its culture and scenery.

"This is the first step in a culinary revolution of the great people of the Yukon and I mean everybody — the people that have come up, the southerners and the First Nations — making an effort together."

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