It’s an odd thought: while the boreal forest - the wondrous home of wood bison, spruce trees and 2.5 million Canadians - makes up over half of the country’s land mass, many southerners know very little about it. It’s Michele Genest’s mission to change that through food. The Boreal Feast, a new cookbook that features recipes to promote the use of northern foods, is the latest iteration in her quest, coming on the heels of her 2010 book The Boreal Gourmet.
“Food’s a very immediate and visceral way to interest people in what’s happening in the forest,” says Genest, who’s based out of Whitehorse, Yukon. “There are a lot of flavours that people who don’t live there won’t have encountered before. I think that’s a really good entry into getting to know the forest. It was certainly my entry into the wilderness. Just going berry picking was what got me going out, and learning how not to be so afraid of it. It’s a very on-the-edge place. But it’s also very knowable. You can learn to be very comfortable there.”
In her 2010 work, Genest focused on Yukon-specific food. She expanded the focus to other boreal regions for this round, travelling to Norway, Finland and Sweden for six weeks to collect recipes, learn about ingredients and network with experts. The results of the quest are stunning: with crisp accompanying photos from Cathie Archbould, the book presents dozens of extravagant menus, using everything from salmon roe, to birch syrup, to morel mushrooms.
“The blueberries and low-bush cranberries were incredibly prolific,” she recalls of her time in Sweden. “You could see them from the road, these little twinkling blue and red enticing globes. As we were driving along in our rented car or waiting for bus, we’d just dive off into the woods and pick berries. That became our fruit as we were travelling. We weren’t always able to get to a grocery store in time, so we’d feed ourselves with that in hostels and hotel rooms.”
That experience served as quite the contrast to northern communities in Canada, which often feature a crippling lack of access to fresh produce at affordable prices. Many northern towns, Genest notes, don’t even have a grocery store. In some places, traditional hunting, trapping, foraging and fishing continue to sustain communities. But more than anything, a national food policy is required, which she says will require some real determination.
“It’ll take political will,” she says. “But what lights the fire under political will? Clamouring from the citizenry. I think we need to work together as Canadians to conserve and protect our natural food resources, and just get better at food production and lobby the government to start taking this seriously. There’s lots of amazing individual initiatives in the provinces and territories, and great research going on at many of the universities. I think we need to just get better at it. The only way that we will is by asking for good, sustained access to quality food for everybody.”
Michele Genest will be doing a book signing at McNally Robinson on Saturday, Oct. 25. Visit borealgourmet.com for more information.
Published in Volume 69, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 22, 2014)