ESKIMOS, I HEAR, are using more and more Ski-Doos,
which are to dogsleds what outboard motorboats are to kayaks, and enable them to travel on snow and ice farther, faster, with less effort. The Eskimos get the money to buy gasoline for the Ski-Doos by selling the fish they formerly fed to their huskies. This is hard on the huskies, which may be a doomed breed, but it has added a delicacy to our dining tables, for the arctic char now coming south are, if possible, better than speckled trout or salmon.
They are. to me, the Eskimos’ most distinguished contribution to cultural pleasure since Robert Flaherty, who mapped the Belcher Islands and filmed the classic movie, Nanook Of The North, introduced the primitive beauty of Eskimo sculpture to civilization.
The Eskimos, obviously, don’t always know a good thing when they have it. They did their carvings purely for their own fun, and as often as not threw' the completed work away, until Flaherty “discovered” their art and federal officials developed a market for it.
Currently, the Department of Northern Affairs is endeavoring to do for certain Eskimo foods what was done for carvings—develop a profitable demand. With the expert aid of German-horn Erich Hofmann, who was once the chef for a general in the French Foreign Legion and has devoted much of his career to preserving offbeat edibles, the department is establishing plants at which Eskimos process whales, seals, char and salmon. While much of the output is for the Eskimos, there will be a surplus of specialties for restaurants and shops catering to people who like to explore new tastes. Indeed, Northern Affairs’ industrial division has already tested a number of Hofmann's products and recipes on potential customers, among them me. I’ve sampled canned muktuk, which is the outer skin of the beluga whale, canned whale meatballs, and canned whale and seal meat in gravy. The muktuk, with its peculiar, slightly mushroomlike texture and flavor, is quite an experience. It improves on acquaintance, the second bite being more enjoyable than the first, the third more enjoyable than the second. The whale and seal meat, while each has a quality that
sets it apart, is a little like beef. I hese canned items won't be available for a while yet so it's pointless to describe them in detail.
Arctic char is another matter. It is available, at least in our larger cities, both frozen and smoked, and is winning a place on gourmet menus. It's fat, rich, delicious. Clement Burrelle, chef of Quebec City's Garrison Club, sprinkles it with melted butter or olive oil and broils it. and serves it garnished with parsley and lemon slices, with an accompaniment of anchovy butter. John Schaerer, chef of Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel, broils arctic char steaks (eight ounces per person) basted with olive oil, seasoned with paprika as well as the usual salt and pepper, and garnished with sliced ripe tomatoes, anchovy fillets, chopped parsley and lemon halves. Christian Hitz, chef of Quebec's Château Frontenac, brings char fillets to a boil in a mixture of fish stock and white wine, then puts them in an oven at three hundred and seventy-five degrees for twelve minutes, and serves them with an elaborate covering of “mushroom paste — finely chopped and sauteed mushrooms and onions in a cream sauce bound with egg yolks. This sauce, in turn, is topped with Hollandaise sauce, and glazed golden brown, under a salamander. Hitz recommends that the dish be bordered with parsleyed potatoes and lemon sections.
These recipes are for unsmoked char, which, to me, is incomparable if you can’t find smoked char. But char that has been fast-frozen in the north and shipped to a smokehouse such as that run by Dave Kushner in Toronto, for light salting and heavy smoking, has extra zip. It can be sliced very thin and eaten raw, like smoked salmon, as an appetizer.
Kushner’s favorite recipe is a simple one. He chops up a piece of smoked char and scrambles it with eggs. “Tremendous,” he says.
My own favorite is just about as simple: Poach half a char in water in an electric frying pan until the skin can be peeled off easily. This requires no more than a few minutes. Serve with salmon sauce — a cream sauce containing chopped eggs and capers.
If there’s any poached char left over, have it in a salad next day. But there won’t be.
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