Making Culinary Art from Local Trees

Dawson City resident David Curtis handpicks spruce tips to make spruce tip-infused olive oil. Curtis and Christine Clarke, who own Up River Commercial Fishing, were selected to participate in a cross-Canada artisan food producers showcase.

You know that thing that happens when you taste something and it is so delicious that the experience goes beyond just eating something to this ethereal, transcendental, whole body experience? High-end chefs are always on the hunt for a new source of that experience and according to Whitehorse cook and author Michele Genest, there is a new interest in what culinary treasures the Yukon might hold.

Genest points to recent visits from chefs hosting cooking shows as evidence of the growing interest. In addition, a restaurant in Denmark is attracting attention for its menu of wild and foraged Northern food.

“That has caused attention to turn to Canada’s North, to see what is grown here,” Genest says. “We’re at a moment when attention has turned towards ingredients in the North that are not part of the normal diet, but are considered very rich ground for experimentation and learning.

“There are chefs coming up here who are interested in hooking up with Yukon First Nations to learn about traditional approaches to food and learning about ingredients.”

Ingredients like birch sap and spruce tips, for example.

Genest is part of a team of who recently selected two Yukon food companies to be featured in a national showcase. The program is called the Artisan Incubator, presented by the ACE Bakery based in Toronto. In June, 20 artisans from across Canada will introduce their products to players in the food industry and receive support for growing their business. From then Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, two food producers were selected, and both are from Dawson City: Lyndsey Berwyn Larson, with Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup, for their Pure Birch Syrup; and Christine Clarke and David Curtis, with Up River Commercial Fishing, for their spruce tip-infused organic olive oil.

“These two artisans are really interesting,” Genest says. “Uncle Berwyn’s Birch Syrup is the best I’ve ever tasted. His has a really unique quality, so its exciting for us to go down to Toronto and have the chefs taste the syrup and potentially order it and use it in their menus.

“And I think the chefs are going to be really excited about the possibilities with the spruce tip oil and the things you can do with it.”

Both companies were selected because of their commitment to sustainable harvesting and the care they put into their products.

Lyndsey Berwyn Larson is currently camped out with his team at their birch forest, tapping the trees and boiling down the sap in the sugar shack.

Back in Dawson, it’s almost time to harvest spruce tips.

Clarke and Curtis make a variety of products using spruce tips: spruce tip syrup, salt, sugars, candied spruce tips and pickled spruce tips.

It all started as a way to bolster their commercial salmon fishing operation.

Clarke and Curtis started Up River Commercial Fishing to harvest chum salmon and, as Genest says, “turn it into something we are interested in eating as a table food, which is elevating it from the lowliest echelon as only dog food.”

But salmon numbers fluctuate from year to year and as a business they would be vulnerable if that were their only product.

“We decided if we’re going to invest in a commercial kitchen, we’d want to tie in with other products that would be used with the salmon,” Curtis says.

Spruce tips have a long tradition as food and medicine for First Nations and Europeans, Curtis says. Apparently, they’re delicious – and healing – to this day.

The first time Curtis tasted what spruce tips can do to a meal was one of those magical, beyond-food experiences.

“I was working with Miche Genest on a recipe for ground chum salmon burgers when I was introduced to the wonderful world of spruce tips,” he says. “It was a spruce tip, juniper and white wine salmon burger and the taste of it brought tears to my eyes – not in a bad way.”

Spruce tips have a citrusy and resinous flavour, which, Curtis says, is “woodsy.” Makes sense.

“It adds a subtle flavour to things,” he says. And it’s a versatile flavour that goes well with savoury and with sweet.”

For a very northern experience, he recommends trying bannock made with spruce tips with melted juniper butter on top. For a northern nightcap, try his Whiskey Sweet: one part Jamieson Irish Whiskey and a half part spruce tip syrup.

“It’s a gorgeous drink,” Curtis says.

It’s Spruce Tip Season!

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