TORONTO - Michele Genest has long celebrated the wild ingredients of Northern Canada, foraging and creating delicious recipes with which to savour what she's collected. Now she's turned to examining how cultures in other northern countries treat the same ingredients.
In her new cookbook, "The Boreal Feast: A Culinary Journey Through the North" (Harbour Publishing), she examines and compares the wild ingredients found in the boreal forest from Yukon to Alaska to Scandinavia. Along with innovative recipes, the book is a travelogue, with highlights of her trip, along with a recounting of her experiences living in Yukon for 20 years.
"'The Boreal Feast' is a book for cooks, but it's also for people who are just interested in the North and who just are curious about what we do up here," she said from her home in Whitehorse.
The last chapter of her first book, "The Boreal Gourmet: Adventures in Northern Cooking" (Lost Moose, 2010), which won a silver medal in the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards in 2011, "focuses on potluck dinners, which are a big part of northern living, and different feasts, so it was kind of a feasty chapter and one of those feasts is a circumpolar boreal feast and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to write a whole cookbook based on what people eat across and around the north in the boreal forest internationally?'
"I think that my basic philosophy is that we all have food stories and we all have favourite feasts and they are usually really resonant because they're attached to a moment in our lives that is really important or to a continuity in our lives with friends and family. I really liked holding that idea in my head as I was writing 'The Boreal Feast.' Food brings us together and we also come together because of food."
In the book, she has menus and recipes for such feasts as a Yukon Thanksgiving, a Pacific Northwest shellfish feast and a summer solstice party. Spectacular photos were shot by Cathie Archbould.
Genest, also a journalist, says her research focused on what to do with the ingredients in the boreal forest with which she was unfamiliar.
She discovered Labrador tea, which grows wild in the boreal forest across Canada, can be used like a herb or spice as well as a tea. She describes the flavour as partly astringent, partly sweet. It's reminiscent of lemon and cardamom when treated with a sweet application. "It just adds this indefinable brightness and flavour to meat dishes that is just kind of extraordinary."
Genest, 58, says the boreal forest contains a mixture of aspens, alders, willows and conifers, including spruce, pine and subalpine fir.
"It's the largest biome in the world and it's incredibly important for oxygen and it's a carbon sink and it's host to thousands of species and it's a great resource for food and animals," she explains.
"It's, I think, a precious place and one of the reasons that I wanted really to emphasize the feast aspect of the forest itself, just the fact that the forest provides us with a feast, we really need to conserve the forest and respect it as a habitat for wild animals but also a habitat that supplies us with delicious and nourishing food."
Genest found the food scene in Scandinavia is "just hopping" with chefs focusing on local ingredients. Reindeer is a domestic animal and widely available.
"We ate a smoked reindeer roast. The next house that we went to served us smoked reindeer heart," she recounts. "We had fresh reindeer and salted smoked reindeer. In one house in northern Sweden we had reindeer blood crepes. You can buy reindeer blood in the supermarkets, so that was really interesting for us coming from the North."
In Canada, the animals are caribou and are hunted. "They are a delicacy and prized. The meat is beautiful, but you can't buy it because it's wild."
During their travels, she and her husband foraged with people, ate in their homes, went to markets and then ate indigenous food in restaurants.
"Here you can do those first three things, but it hasn't been as easy to find that food in local restaurants until the last five or six years. We were always able to get fish — halibut, salmon — on local restaurant menus, but the vegetables have not been so easy."
"Farming has grown here especially in the last 10 or 15 years, so we can now get farm-gate pig, beef, elk and chickens and turkeys. So our freezer is stocked with organically raised, humanely raised domestic meat, which is awesome. I could do that in Toronto, but it would be a little more tricky," she says.
"Farmers are now producing enough so that we can have Yukon-grown potatoes all winter long and beets and carrots well into the fall. The restaurants and chefs are starting to dialogue more so we can get more Yukon produce at local restaurants."
You don't have to go to the boreal forest for ingredients to make the recipes in "The Boreal Feast." Spruce tips can be picked from trees in your area in the spring. Genest found them in downtown Toronto during a May visit. Birch syrup is widely available, though juniper berries and Labrador tea may be harder to find. At the end of the book, she suggests sources for foraged goods in large cities and online.
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