Recently, while skate-skiing on Fish Lake, Michele Genest rested under a spruce tree and looked at the life around her: she was sitting on cranberry leaves, labrador tea was growing at her feet and a patch of juniper berries rose up next to it.
The seemingly endless bounty of the North, and the recipes that can be created with it, are captured in the local author’s second cookbook, The Boreal Feast: A Culinary Journey Through the North.
“The boreal forest is incredibly diverse and has so much to offer us,” she later says, moving through her home kitchen, tending to two pots of boiling berries and flat bread baking in the oven.
“Over the last 20 years since I’ve been here, I’ve very slowly gotten to know the environment and the area. It’s a constant process, and I’m learning how fragile it is, and important it is that we learn to love it and conserve it.”
Genest’s first book, The Boreal Gourmet, was a national bestseller and won silver in Taste Canada’s Food Writing Awards in 2011.
She’s followed it up with The Boreal Feast, which dives into different cultures across the North, from the Yukon to Scandinavia, and uses wild and cultivated ingredients from the boreal forest.
Chapter eight of The Boreal Gourmet included several recipes with ingredients from Scandinavia that served as a launching pad for The Boreal Feast.
“I thought why not go to those parts of the world and see what they do with those ingredients?”
In 2012, Genest travelled to Scandinavia for eight weeks, visiting Sweden, Norway and Finland, where she was taken by the traditions that had been passed down so fervently from generation to generation. Some recipes were more than 150 years old and continued to endure, almost unchanged.
The first four chapters of the The Boreal Feast are broken down by season - spring, summer, fall, winter - with the final chapter called The Boreal Pantry, which ranges from jams and jellies to infused oils, flavored breads and liqueurs and aquavits, among other recipes.
As a timer beeps in the kitchen, Genest removes three pieces of flat bread from the oven, which she will be serving at her book launch on June 19 at the Old Fire Hall from 5 to 7 p.m.
She tried the bread during her first night in Sweden, baked by her friend Hakan Sarnaker. The crackers are made with corn flour, four different types of seeds and flavoured with anise, fennel and crushed juniper berries.
With the bread resting on the counter, she moves back to the stove, steam rising above the pots, high bush cranberries boiling in one, red currants in the other. She stirs a wooden ladle around the pot, the juice of the berries coating the spoon. As the mixture thickens, the water slowly turns syrupy. Droplets that once fell individually begin to congeal, slipping from the spoon in a sheet of red.
“Almost there,’’ she says eagerly, as if she’s doing this for the first time.
Genest’s passion for cooking is evident not only in her writing but in her mannerisms in the kitchen. She cooks with love, which is good news for those attending her book launch and feasting on the samples provided.
After the official launch in Whitehorse, Genest will be on tour for the next several months, including a luncheon at the Swedish Embassy in Toronto later this month. It’s an event that she hopes will help her access the Scandinavian market.
She will travel across Canada, into Alaska and then back over to Europe, sharing some of the same recipes she learned during her last trip in 2012.
In a recent visit to Toronto see her brother, Genest taught him how to make a red pepper jelly, an experience that made him a “total convert.” Three days later he bought more ingredients to make it again, after giving the first batch away to friends.
The sharing of knowledge is part of what drives Genest forward, of what can be created, what can shaped and flavoured with the natural ingredients of the North. Self-sufficiency is part of that.
“More people are interested, are learning about cooking for themselves and controlling the ingredients,” she says. “There’s a desire for more intimate, hands-on knowledge of food and a desire to support local farmers.”
She speaks as she drains the syrup into glass jars. The aroma of the berries still floats through the kitchen.
Genest gently screws on the lid and waits for the seal to pop shut. She watches with the same care as someone keeping a keen eye on a roast - every step matters, each leading to a final product made with care.
When the seal locks, she smiles. “This is going to be good,” she says, handing the jar away.
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