It’s August 31 and the snow is halfway down Gray Mountain. In downtown Whitehorse the leaves are still on the trees and many of them are green. This morning I talked to my sister, who lives in Parksville but used to live here, and she said that in 1992, the snow fell on September 13 while the leaves were still on the trees and that was it. Winter.
I was in Haines for the whole of last weekend, cooking for a fundraiser for the Sheldon Museum. It rained there as it did in Whitehorse. We went to Haines in early fall and came back three days later in early winter. On the drive home, as we looked out at the snow creeping down the mountains, down below the treeline and then finally, down into the forest beside the road, a strange feeling grew in my chest. Oh yes. Winter. I have to don my winter self. But please, not yet. I haven’t even been out for low-bush cranberries.
The harvest has been crazy this year. Everyone is saying so. Everything is two weeks early. I almost missed the spruce tips—they were ready in mid-May, when I was away. I just managed to get four cups at the very end of the season. The high-bush cranberries were ripe in Dawson on the first weekend in August, and people were picking blueberries and huckleberries in Fraser the weekend after that. Some folks have already made their first foray into the woods for low-bush.
I got a call from a friend this morning who wants to borrow my steam juicer. She has already picked a bucket of crabapples from our neighbours’ tree in downtown Whitehorse. It’s too soon! I’m not ready! Normally our neighbours deliver a portion of their harvest to my house in late September and I make up batches of jelly and sauce and apple vodka. I don’t have time to process anything this week. Yikes.
The same thing was happening in Haines. Helen Alten, the director of the Sheldon Museum, called me in early August to say the apples were falling off the tree in front of the museum. The tree is 90 years old, the first apple tree planted in Haines, and its fruit was intended to be a key ingredient in a braise for the 60 pounds of elk ribs I was bringing down for the dinner.
So Helen got busy. She made applesauce and froze it. She put apples through the juicer and froze the juice. And still the apples rained down. On the weekend, my fellow cook and I arrived to a fridge full of apples at the Senior’s Centre, where we’d be cooking. The next day a volunteer appeared with another 40 lbs.
We boiled apples, strained them and collected the juice. We braised the elk in beef broth and apple juice with some juniper berries, spruce tips and other northern herbs. We made a barbecue sauce with applesauce, birch syrup, hot peppers and garlic. And we stirred in some Calvados, the apple cognac from Normandy, land of apples. The sauce was awesome.
In the kitchen that day, someone said wouldn’t it be great if we had a cider press and could put it to work here and now. Oh, wouldn’t it! But even without cider, there’s a lot you can do with home-processed apples. At Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines they were serving crabapple-tinis on the weekend, and a Manhattan made with their own bourbon (a fantastic product, but more on that next time), sweet vermouth, local apple bitters and a local cherry for garnish.
There are folks in Whitehorse who make apple cider every year. So far I haven’t heard of anyone making apple cognac. But we have two great local vodkas, and we have a lot of crabapples ripening early this year. So I’m going to make some apple vodka; it’s fast and easy and all I have time for. You can too. All you do is wash the apples, stem them, cut them in half, pack them into a one-litre jar and pour vodka over top. Store in a dark place for three months, strain and serve.
Now get out and harvest. The snow is halfway down Gray Mountain.