By Stephanie Gordon
From mushrooms that grow after a forest fire to foods infused with foraged goods, these flavours define Yukon cuisine.
Like poutine to Quebec and the Nanaimo bar to British Columbia, what comes to mind when you think of Yukon cuisine?
Food in the Yukon has a rich history rooted in hunting, gathering, fishing, foraging and preserving. Wild salmon, bannock, bison, elk, arctic char, moose, and wild berries, top the list when northerners are asked what their favourite foods are.
The champagne of honey
For Ying Allen, “all the wild things” is how to define northern cuisine. Ying and Eric Allen run Wild Things, a honey and foraged goods store on the edge of Little Fox Lake, an hour north of Whitehorse.
As beekeepers, they started with fireweed honey. Fireweed is a tall, purple-pink wildflower known for its ability to take over areas burned by a fire. There was a big fire around the Fox Lake region in 1998 that caused the area around the Allens to “burn purple all summer long” for 15 years.
Fireweed is the official floral emblem of the Yukon and is traditionally used by First Nations communities as food and medicine because it’s high in vitamin A and C. Fireweed can be cooked in butter, eaten raw, pickled, or used to make a spicy-tasting honey.
“They call it the champagne of honey,” Ying begins, adding that Wild Things was featured on the Japanese TV show Bee World for its fireweed honey. The colour of fireweed honey is clear – almost closer to water – instead of your typical yellow honey.
As a result, there was no shortage of customers at the Wild Things store. “People came here to buy honey and kept asking, do you have anything else?” Ying shares. That’s when they expanded and started making jelly and syrup with fireweed and other foraged goods like highbush cranberries, spruce tip, and soapberry. They also offered arctic char from their pond and foraged mushrooms.
“Some people think that the north is this vast wasteland and it’s all tundra and igloos,” Eric Allen says. “But the Yukon is this vast forest that is productive and beautiful with rivers. It’s just the pristine wilderness.”
Now in their seventies, Ying and Eric have slowed down and closed their honey shop, but they still sell to other retailers.
There’s no interest within their family at the moment to continue the business, but they’re looking for someone to take over because there’s still an abundance of wild things to share with the world.
“The main drive that lies behind our whole business and our lifestyle is to try and live a harmonious lifestyle with nature and the outdoors,” Eric says.
No fungal-phobia here
Another food item that rises from the ashes of a forest fire are morel mushrooms.
Mike Boudreau previously owned a restaurant specializing in foraged goods, before narrowing in on his passion for mushrooms. He has been picking mushrooms for 15 years in addition to leading foraging workshops as @forestfloorforaging.
“We have large swaths of forest that burn every year and because they burn in such remote areas, they are allowed to burn very large. This provides a lot of mushrooms,” Boudreau says.
It’s not as simple as any forest fire will produce morel mushrooms. The Yukon is special.
“There’s the temperature of the soil, the angle of the ground that they’re growing on, the type of forest, the ratio of types of trees and moss, the age of the forest, just about every possible bit of information you can imagine is very, very specific and it just so happens to be that almost all of the Yukon fits all of those criteria just perfectly,” Boudreau explains.
Even though the Yukon is well known as one of the top providers of morel mushrooms, it’s not as popular in North American cuisine.
“North Americans tend to be very fungal phobic. We’re afraid of mushrooms. If it’s not a white mushroom from the grocery store, it’s going to kill you for sure, which is just not true,” Boudreau says.
He harvests 150 kinds of edible mushrooms from all over the country and notes there’s many different flavour possibilities. Morels taste like a smoky steak, but there are other mushrooms that taste like candy. “There’s flavours for kids out there and it’s unreal.”
Maple Syrup’s Cousin in Birch Syrup
Lyndsey Berwyn Larson, known as Berwyn, makes birch syrup near the McQuesten River under the brand Uncle Berwyn’s.
“People will try our syrup and think it’s not very good because they’re expecting maple syrup. But expecting birch syrup to taste like maple syrup would be like expecting oranges to taste like apples, right?” Larson says.
Maple has twice as much sugar as birch and is easier to obtain. While it takes 40 litres of sap to make one litre of maple syrup, it takes 80 to 100 litres of sap to make the same amount of birch syrup.
The flavour of birch syrup also changes within a season – and it’s a very short season. Trees are tapped anywhere from 11 to 28 days, with an average season of 20 days.
At the start of the season, the syrup is light and sweet and can be added to pancakes. During the middle of the season, birch syrup tends to lose its sweetness and is better mixed with some balsamic vinegar and used like salad dressing. By the end of the season, the syrup is dark and savoury – perfect for barbeque sauces. Yukon Brewing even takes some of Berwyn’s syrup to make a birch beer.
To add to its uniqueness, the average lifespan of a birch tree is 140 years.
“Birch forests don’t live forever,” Larson explains, adding that his forest of Alaska birch is already closer to 80 to 100 years old and it will age out with his family.
Locally grown produce in Dawson City
Resilience and resourcefulness – that’s how Shelby Jordan, owner of BonTon restaurant in Dawson City, describes northern food.
As a trained butcher, Jordan’s expertise is in preserving local meats – mainly beef and pork – for charcuterie and salamis. In the Yukon, wild game like moose are not served in commercial operations because regulations only allow subsistence hunting to maintain healthy wildlife populations. If you’re eating game like elk or bison in a restaurant, most likely it’s coming from an elk or bison farm to preserve the region’s natural resources.
“When I think about northern food and cuisine, whether it’s farmed, hunted, or obtained, it’s not easy,” Jordan says.
But Jordan’s restaurant is up to the task. BonTon is well known for highlighting locally grown ingredients – even in the winter – made possible by two large root cellars in town to store produce. The fertile soils surrounding Dawson City provide Jordan’s restaurant with fresh produce like potatoes, beets, onions, cabbages, kohlrabi, turnips, and peas. The longer days during summer in the northern hemisphere make plants grow faster.
“It’s 24 hours of daylight so we are getting cabbages that are this big. It’s a lot,” Jordan shares.
BonTon makes an effort to list which farms ingredients come from to combat common misconceptions that nothing grows in the north. “We list the farms where we get everything and it can get very wordy, but we want to acknowledge the people producing and making your food,” Jordan says.
Whether it’s fresh produce or morel mushrooms or wild game, there are many reasons Yukon remains on people’s bucket list.