Fire & Ice

On a culi­nary jour­ney like no other, Alyssa Schwartz dis­cov­ers a true north spirit and, along with the ad­ven­ture, meets the chefs, the food­ies and the tastemak­ers that are re­defin­ing the flavour land­scape of Cana­dian cui­sine

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy by John Cullen

A culi­nary jour­ney dis­cov­ers a true North spirit, re­defin­ing the flavour land­scape of Cana­dian cui­sine

tHE MOST CANA­DIAN MO­MENT of my life came on the eve of the sum­mer sol­stice, also nearly the eve of Canada’s 150th birth­day. Though the world type­casts our cit­i­zens as hardy north­ern­ers, on the cusp of sum­mer, my Face­book feed was full of friends mark­ing the start of the sea­son in shorts and T-shirts. I, mean­while, was ful­fill­ing ev­ery Cana­dian stereo­type, stand­ing in the mid­dle of a snow flurry on the bank of the Sylvia Grin­nell River, just out­side of Iqaluit, swathed in layer on top of layer: a heavy cash­mere turtle­neck sweater over in­su­lat­ing merino wool, a Canada Goose jacket and toga dress fash­ioned out of a Bay blan­ket yet on top of those. On my head, I wore a knit toque, my red Olympic mit­tened-hands wrapped around a tin mug filled with steam­ing ap­ple cider. And I still couldn’t get warm. The Inuit cal­en­dar has six sea- sons; with un­even mounds of snow still splotched across the scrubby tun­dra, ice floes bob­bing in the grey, flat wa­ter along­side us and a wide, white sky that was just as bright at 9 p.m. as it was in the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon, this evening felt firmly of both upirn­gaaq, Inuk­ti­tut for the sea­son of mov­ing ice, and au­jaq, when the sun never leaves the sky.

It’s not un­usual for th­ese Inu­it­language names to be trans­lated into the more sim­plis­tic Spring

and Sum­mer. But this Spring­meets-Sum­mer night didn’t re­sem­ble a sea­son that I knew, nor did the wind-whipped air – with its tang of dust and min­eral, ab­sent the fa­mil­iar musk and green scents of soil and veg­e­ta­tion – carry a smell rec­og­niz­able to my nose. In a sim­i­lar fash­ion, the North, as it re­vealed it­self to me dur­ing a week­long jour­ney that touched upon three Cana­dian coasts, turned out to be both in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar and strik­ingly un­like the place I’ve called home all my life.

Called Across the Top of Canada and or­ga­nized by Ed­i­ble Canada, a restau­rant, food shop and culi­nary tour­ing com­pany based in Van­cou­ver, my trip was con­ceived as a foodie jour­ney, bring­ing to­gether chefs from Toronto, Van­cou­ver, St. John’s and Que­bec and guests from across the coun­try. In the span of eight days, we flew by a pri­vate char­ter plane from Van­cou­ver to White­horse and on to Yel­lowknife; we touched down in Rankin In­let be­fore con­tin­u­ing north to Iqaluit and then east to St. John’s, stop­ping in Churchill, Man., for an af­ter­noon of bel­uga spot­ting as we crossed the coun­try a sec­ond time on the way back to Van­cou­ver.

wEL­COME TO WHAT I LIKE TO CALL the largest gro­cery store in the world,” Rosanna Strong, the owner of Strong In­ter­pre­ta­tion, a Yel­lowknife-based tour­ing com­pany says, as we stroll along a board­walk that runs from the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly along the shore of Frame Lake, through short, spindly birch and po­plar trees and low-ly­ing shrubs, ges­tur­ing at the bo­real for­est which sur­rounds us.

Wear­ing a white ny­lon wind­breaker, scarf wound around her neck and orange ex­pe­di­tion-style hat on her head, Strong ap­pears out­fit­ted more for a se­ri­ous trek than a shop­ping trip. But she’s dressed for the mos­qui­tos rather than the weather: on this sunny June Sun­day morn­ing – the third day of our jour­ney across the North – the tem­per­a­ture is al­ready above 20 de­grees Cel­sius, and we only have to walk a few steps be­fore Strong spots the first item on her shop­ping list: a vivid pink wild rose. “I’m sure you pay big bucks for rose­hip tea, but I just har­vest mine out here,” she says, not­ing that the blooms are full of cal­cium, iron, mag­ne­sium, vi­ta­mins A, E and C, and other nu­tri­ents.

“This is a per­fect time of year be­cause ev­ery­thing is just go­ing pop, pop, pop, pop,” Strong says, walk­ing fur­ther into the for­est. In a mo­ment per­fectly timed to demon­strate this point, she stops sec­onds later and crouches at a low bush cov­ered in small, waxy blue berries. Juniper she says, mo­tion­ing that I should have a taste. I pop a berry into my mouth – it starts sweet and then evolves into some­thing gen­tly spicy and evoca­tive of a cedar closet.

Though for­ag­ing might seem like an ob­vi­ous ac­tiv­ity for a culi­nary­themed tour, North­ern Canada isn’t the most ob­vi­ous des­ti­na­tion for such a trip. At this lat­i­tude of 62.45 de­grees, we’ve yet to hit the north­ern­most point in our jour­ney; tak­ing off the next day, we’re air­borne for just a few sec­onds be­fore Yel­lowknife’s rel­a­tive lush­ness yields to bar­ren rock and tun­dra. “It’s tough to grow here and tough to live here,” Strong said dur­ing our for­ag­ing walk, words that come back to me as I look out at the bleak land­scape from my win­dow seat thou­sands of me­tres above. “It’s easy to get over­whelmed by the vast­ness, but what’s in­ter­est­ing is the de­tails. There’s a lot [of food]. It’s just a mat­ter of what you know.”

More com­plex is that while the land­scape looks like a desert, when it comes to food, the ref­er­ence is more so­ci­etal than lit­eral – for thou­sands of years, Inuit pop­u­la­tions were able to reap sig­nif­i­cant nu­tri­tion from this land (Strong, who holds a zo­ol­ogy de­gree with a mi­nor in botany, learned most of what she knows about north­ern flora uses from lo­cal Dene elders and other for­agers). But fac­tors such as cli­mate change and hunt­ing reg­u­la­tions have made tra­di­tional means of food gath­er­ing less re­li­able than for gen­er­a­tions past; mean­while, Statis­tics Canada data shows that gro­cery store prices in Nu­navut can be up to three times higher than na­tion­wide av­er­ages.

Yes, the North is a sur­pris­ing des­ti­na­tion for a food tour. But if un­der­stand­ing the food of a place is one key to a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of it over­all, then it’s also a great lens through which to ex­plore. On a bus tour around Rankin In­let, a town in Nu­navut where as many as eight out of 10 chil­dren may go to school hun­gry, our guide took us to a lo­cal gro­cery store and pleaded that we tell ev­ery­one we knew back home about the $15-plus bags of sugar and pack­ages of no-brand ched­dar on its shelves; while Inuit are al­lowed to hunt – as they have in the Arc­tic for thou­sands of years – another man we met told us his li­cence only al­lowed him to do so on a site two days’ travel away, which, he said, is as good as no li­cence at all.

And yet they are eager to share with us: at a re­cep­tion for our group at Rankin In­let’s com­mu­nity cen­tre, a func­tional but di­lap­i­dated build­ing that feels like a mon­u­ment to Jordin Tootoo, a lo­cally born and raised NHL player whose mid­dle name means Thun­der in Inuk­ti­tut and who is seen as a role model for a com­mu­nity of kids lack­ing in icons, we’re greeted by the mayor and other lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives. They’re wait­ing for us with a freshly pre­pared lunch of Arc­tic char chow­der, cari­bou, muskox slid­ers and, for

dessert, cake stud­ded with pre­cious blue­ber­ries har­vested off the tun­dra dur­ing last sum­mer’s all-too­brief grow­ing sea­son.

Part of the draw of the Ed­i­ble Canada jour­ney is that it’s ac­com­pa­nied by some of the coun­try’s most re­spected chefs: Jeremy Charles, the co-owner and ex­ec­u­tive chef of Ray­monds, a St. John’s restau­rant that is fre­quently touted as the best in the coun­try; Wayne Mor­ris of Toronto’s ac­claimed Bo­ralia, whose menus are in­spired by the his­tor­i­cal cuisines of Canada’s na­tive peo­ples and early set­tlers; Ned Bell, a Van­cou­ver­based cham­pion of sus­tain­able seafood; and Stephane Mo­dat, chef at Fair­mont le Chateau Fron­tenac in Que­bec; along with Grant Sceney, World Class Canada’s for­mer Bar­tender of the Year and the head of the cock­tail pro­gram at Fair­mont Pa­cific Rim, who strolled with me dur­ing Strong’s for­ag­ing tour, col­lect­ing spruce tips and fire­weed, an in­gre­di­ent which later ap­pears in a cock­tail made with whisky and cran­ber­ries, chilled with ice freshly carved off an ice­berg. While guests spend days tour­ing, the chefs hunt, fish and for­age, meet lo­cal food pro­duc­ers and col­lab­o­rate with re­gional culi­nary tal­ent on semi-nightly culi­nary feasts.

While Yel­lowknife is ex­plod­ing with the first fruits of sum­mer, when we touch down in Iqaluit a day af­ter our for­ag­ing tour with Strong, there’s still ice bob­bing in Fro­bisher Bay and lin­ger­ing mounds of white snow dot­ting the land like the ir­reg­u­lar speck­les of a cow’s hide. With a stiff wind whip­ping up dust around town, its ef­fect is driv­ing the tem­per­a­ture down near freez­ing.

My grade school so­cial stud­ies teach­ings come alive for me up here: on a tour of Apex, a town ad­ja­cent to Iqaluit, I touch my hand to the weather-worn wood of a boarded-up Hud­son’s Bay lodge on the edge of the bay and marvel. And child­hood sto­ries of how Inuit cul­tures ex­press af­fec­tion come back to me in a most un­ex­pected and de­light­ful way: af­ter be­ing led across the scrubby banks of the Sylvia Grin­nell River on a plant tour by Aalasi Joamie, a com­mu­nity el­der who speaks just a hand­ful of English words – she pan­tomimes the tra­di­tional uses of the an­kle­high shrubs and brush and some­how lan­guage bar­ri­ers fall away – I touch my hand to my heart in grat­i­tude of her time. When she tilts her face to mine in re­sponse, I’m con­fused for an in­stant. But then I re­mem­ber a long-for­got­ten les­son

son about Inuit kisses – ku­nik, the greet­ing is called – and I lean in. As we gen­tly rub noses my eyes fill with tears.

Our group gath­ers back on the same site as this en­chant­ing ex­change later that day for the sol­stice party that went down as one of the most mean­ing­ful – and Cana­dian – mo­ments I can re­call. It’s not fancy – just our group and some lo­cals stand­ing around a bonfire on the river­bank (so far are we above the tree line that the fire­wood had to brought with us on our char­tered Air North plane, a line of lo­cal vol­un­teers stand­ing on the run­way help­ing to off­load it onto a truck) – oh, also, it’s snow­ing. It’s as per­fect a Cana­dian stereo­type as my out­fit – but also just per­fect.

Din­ner is a feast of coun­try foods: for­aged greens and marsh­mal­lows made with tun­dra berries, tur- bot and char, fried goose eggs and lo­cal foie gras, even seared seal meat, served over a trit­i­cale grains which had been brought up from White­horse.

Later, I strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with Ned Bell, who is ex­ec­u­tive chef for the sus­tain­able seafood pro­gram Ocean Wise. As we stand around the fire toast­ing raven­berry (an Arc­tic red berry) marsh­mal­lows made by one of the lo­cal chefs, we dis­cuss Bell’s ex­pe­ri­ences that af­ter­noon gath­er­ing in­gre­di­ents for din­ner, cook­ing in this un­usual set­ting, and that seal, which is tender and meaty with a whiff of sea brine that feels un­ex­pected but shouldn’t. It’s Bell’s first time cook­ing with the controversial meat, a pri­mary form of sus­te­nance for peo­ple of the north for so many gen­er­a­tions, and we chat about some of the many as­pects of it, from the hu­man­ity of the hunt to bounty of the stock, that would sur­prise south­ern Cana­di­ans.

“Isn’t that why we’re here?” Bell asks. “To try foods we haven’t tried be­fore and to think of them in dif­fer­ent ways and ask ques­tions about them that we may not have even thought to ask if we were some­where else?” He’s right, of course. But it strikes me this trip is about so much more than food. It’s a meet­ing of east, west, north and south, old and new, past and present, fa­mil­iar and strange; for this brief, mag­i­cal mo­ment, all of th­ese feel knit­ted to­gether into one mag­nif­i­cent and ut­terly Cana­dian fab­ric.

IF YOU GO This year’s Across the Top of Canada jour­ney is sold out. The 2019 trip is planned for June 14 to 23 of that year. For de­tails, go to across­thetopof­canada.com.

Clock­wise from top left: roast­ing hand­made marsh­mal­lows on the banks of the Sylvia Grun­nel River in Iqaluit; a cabin in Yel­lowknife; Arc­tic char; Sceney’s Yukon Cob­bler gin cock­tail gar­nished with el­der­ber­ries and wild­flow­ers. Op­po­site: steamed NL lobster, chick­pea and peashoot salad, roasted red potato salad and beet and bar­ley salad, all by chef Todd Per­rin of Mallard Cot­tage at Quidi Vidi, out­side St. John’s

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