CHARLIE GILLIS Investigates why everyone is suddenly hungry for Canada’s Indigenous foods

August 2 2004


CHARLIE GILLIS Investigates why everyone is suddenly hungry for Canada’s Indigenous foods

August 2 2004



CHARLIE GILLIS Investigates why everyone is suddenly hungry for Canada’s Indigenous foods

ON A WINDSWEPT hillside near Ponteix, Sask., under a vaguely threatening sky, Great Thunder is giving me the eyeball. Even from the safety of a one-tonne pickup, this massive bison bull looks capable of serious damage, with his stout horns, stovepipe-sized hooves and 2,800 lb. of pure, rippling muscle. “You can almost feel the ground shake when he walks toward you,” murmurs Kim Legault, owner of the Great Divide Bison Ranch. “He’s the king of the herd. All the other bulls bow down to him.” Legault, a brush-headed ranchman whom his wife Jackie jokingly calls “the bison whisperer,” assures me that buffalo rarely charge humans. But on this evening I can’t

help feeling vulnerable. Less than an hour earlier I was tucking enthusiastically into a T-bone steak, which had come from one of Great Thunder’s many offspring—a heifer known as K-68. The meat had been brilliantly prepared, marinated for hours in Jackie’s own blend of wine, minced onion, Montreal steak spice, garlic and olive oil, then seared to perfection on the couple’s aging gas barbecue. I ate it as if starved, grandly declaring between forkfuls of potato salad that I was officially a bison-meat convert.

Now, with Great Thunder and about 300 other members of the Legaults’ prize herd looking me over, I’m seized by irrational fear. “Maybe he can smell buffalo on your breath,” Kim chuckles as the bull starts lumbering in our direction. There’s a discernible parting of the herd as he moves, and for an instant

he seems headed directly for my side of the

cab. But when he’s a couple of metres away, something diverts his attention—a noise, perhaps, or a cow he’s been courting. Instead of stopping to suss us out, he raises his barrel-sized head, lets out a surprisingly unthunderous grunt and wearily ambles away.

AS A GENERAL RULE, I find it’s best not to meet what I eat—nor any members of its immediate family. But my visit to the Legaults’ ranch in southwest Saskatchewan is part of a special quest in Canadian cuisine. While foodies have enthused for years about individual foods produced in specific regions—

Arctic char, say, or perogies from Vegreville, Alta,—I, for one, had not tasted many of them, and had certainly never eaten a single, masterfully cooked meal drawn from the best the country has to offer. And thus the challenge: a gourmet lunch made exclusively from domestic ingredients, with a strong bias toward indigenous species. I chose bison for the main course out of a fascination with the animal’s fabled history, and, frankly, for its fantastic taste. With a flavour similar to beef and a quarter of the fat, it’s ideal low-carb fare, packing enough protein in one roast to fuel the offensive line of a football team.

The rest I’ve entrusted to a rising star in the gastronomic universe, Kevin Boyce. A 33year-old chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada, Boyce is a connoisseur of all things springing from his native soil, be it Newfoundland cloudberries or B.C. fireweed honey. More importantly, he’s a willing accomplice in my little project. At the school’s kitchens in Charlottetown, he has developed a luscious-sounding, five-course menu (page 74) exclusively for Maclean’s (okay, for me), drawing from his experience in fine restaurants like Alberta’s Jasper Park Lodge and Queen’s Landing in Niagara-onthe-Lake, Ont. For the past year, Boyce has been teaching Canadian cuisine to secondyear students and steadily expanding his own repertoire of domestic products. “I’m looking forward to trying this,” he tells me on the phone from Prince Edward Island. Not as much, I assure him, as I am.

First, though, I decide to research the main course by visiting the Legaults’ 2,600hectare ranch, where buffalo literally roam and, on a clear day, you can gaze across the U.S. border into Montana. On a ridge above the coulee, where his herd peacefully grazes, Kim Legault stops the truck and points to the line where the watershed splits north and south. The land, he says, has never been cultivated—not even by his great-grandparents who settled here in 1912. “It’s exacdy the same as it was when the bisons’ ancestors ran on it a century ago.” Looking south, he gestures to the wide valley where Plains Cree, Blackfoot and Assiniboine had once

hunted buffalo and wild herds lived yearround. I remember what he told me earlier that evening: “Bison are the easiest animals in the world to raise. They can live in conditions most cows would never survive.” The same principle applies to all kinds of Canadian food. From Saskatoon berries to the salt-pork recipes favoured by French Canadians, climatological adversity has long shaped what we eat, forming a distinctive yet comparatively healthy diet. Outside the greenbelts in B.C.’s Fraser Valley or Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, only the hardiest plants and animals survived, so things like dried meat, berries, root vegetables and

cabbages filled the larders of early settlers. “Their gardens didn’t have much variety,” says Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny, a food historian and author in Saint-Irénée, Que. “But people had recipes they’d brought with them from the old country.” Their genius, she adds, was adapting those methods to available ingredients. “Instead of buying white sugar, which was really expensive, they might use maple sugar they produced themselves and find the results were very good.” Agricultural advancement and greater prosperity made things easier, of course. We learned to grow what we wanted. Failing that, we paid to import it. But chefs like

Boyce are reviving interest in natural foodstuffs, weaving them into menus in a tribute to the country’s natural history. His old employer, Fairmont Hotels, regularly showcases regional products in its fine-dining restaurants across the country. “European chefs are coming here now because of what we have to offer,” says Boyce. “I think the public is becoming more aware, too.”

IT’S THE DAY before my feast, and Boyce is ticking off the ingredients required for his creation. We’re seated in the culinary institute’s dining room in Charlottetown, with its postcard view of the Hillsborough River

and lighthouses across the estuary. Spikyhaired and stocky, with intense but smiling eyes, he was 15 when he got his first job at a chain restaurant in Ajax, Ont. Since then, he’s become a culinary world traveller. At one point, he ran a bistro in Sydney, Australia.

Today, he seems pleased with the bison tenderloin I’ve brought from a butcher in Port Credit, Ont. But his request for saskatoon berries has caused me some embarrassment. Despite having recently visited a berry farm (near Saskatoon, no less), I’d wrongly gambled on finding fresh ones in Toronto. “It’s okay, we can always substitute blueberries,” Boyce says magnanimously. But I refuse to give up. The day before, I ordered a box of frozen saskatoons from Prairie Berries in Keeler, Sask., near Regina, which are now on rush delivery by Air Canada. If the national carrier is serious about renewing customer faith, this seems like a good opportunity.

At 9:45 the next morning, Boyce has the kitchen buzzing. I find him in spotless white chef’s garb, stirring together wild rice and blueberries—the stuffing for our bison meat. “There’s some quail meat in there to make it hang together,” he explains. To his right is Moe Mathieu, a 33-year-old chef-intraining from Regina, who’s been seconded for our project and is now cracking up lobster for the ravioli filling. A few metres away, Eric Hollenberg, a 25-year-old student from Hamilton, cleans and trims Jerusalem artichokes for the salad. “They’re from Moncton,” he says of the gnarled-looking tubers piled in a nearby strainer. “Just in

case you thought they came from Jerusalem.”

And, to my immense relief, there are the saskatoon berries; they arrived the previous afternoon. Now they’re simmering over a low, steady flame, the first step in reducing them to a sugary dressing for the salad. This, I’m told, will depart pleasingly from the sharpness of the goat cheese. “You want some flavours that contrast,” Boyce tells me, “and some that complement.”

By 10:30 a.m., Moe has shredded the lobster and transformed it into a delicioussmelling goo, using the world-famous cheese invented by Trappist monks in Oka, Que. After sandwiching balls of the filling between sheets of homemade pasta, he and Boyce cut out the ravioli, which will sit amid a light, smoky tomato broth. Boyce then begins searing the freshly filled bison in an oily pan, and this is my cue to leave. As I head for the dining room, Boyce is spreading five white plates on a countertop.

THERE’S SOMETHING special about food raised in your own backyard. Everyone with a garden knows it, and I learned it as a farm kid, growing up with a pioneer grandfather and a steady supply of farm-raised meat, eggs and milk. (To this day, I defy anyone to improve on fresh lamb chops slathered with the wild mint that grows behind a log fence in Celista, B.C.)

Now, if you consider Canada one giant backyard, pick the best of the countless foods it offers, apply gourmet cooking techniques, and throw in the best wines from the Niagara Peninsula and Okanagan Valley, you get an inkling of what I enjoyed in Charlottetown.

With Dave Harding, the school’s gregarious programs manager, for company, I spread my napkin as the salad arrives in a splash of red, orange and yellow tomato. Gathering some of the goat cheese and cracked peppercorn on to my fork, I pile on a paper-thin slice of Jerusalem artichoke and slosh the mixture through some of the saskatoon “coulis” at the edge of the plate. Thus begins my first roller-coaster ride of tastes: rich; then mildly acidic; then explosively sweet. Quite a trip.

As the second course arrives, my expectations are rising. I’ve never tasted Newfoundland cloudberries (known on the Rock as “bakeapples”) and have been told they’re

CHEFS like Boyce are reviving interest in our food. ‘Europeans are coming here now because of what we have to offer.’

quite tart. But on Boyce’s Quebec quail dish that tartness offsets the honeyed bird meat brilliantly. And while my exposure to foie gras is also limited, Boyce has shrewdly tucked it under the quail itself, so its richness mixes subtly in every forkful. The ravioli, however, is his triumph: while lobster is welcome on my plate in any form, these pouches of the stuff are swimming in smoky tomato consommé, and the licoricey flavour of grilled fennel gives lobster a whole new vitality. Between bites of pasta and sips of Pelee Island Gewürztraminer, I hear Harding quietly voice my sentiments. “Oh,” he says, shaking his head, “this is really good.” On to the bison. Because it lacks fat, buffalo meat tends to cook more quickly than beef, and Boyce will later grumble that he left these tenderloins in too long. The pieces do emerge more brown than red, but I’m not about to brook a round of self-flagellation. The meat is tender, the stuffing is sweet and the light mushroom sauce complements both perfectly. It’s a powerhouse entrée. By the time the terrine arrives—sinful frozen mousse with blackberries and a twig of maple sugar—I’m feeling like a preRevolutionary French aristocrat.

My punishment, it turns out, is a glass of ice wine, and I’m still sipping placidly as Boyce, Mathieu and Hollenberg emerge from the kitchen, prompting an effusion of compliments from my side of the table. Mathieu, who is Metis, tells me he is about to open a restaurant in Regina, called Willows on the Wascana. “We hope to have a menu composed exclusively of regional products,” he says.

That seems like a tall order, even as domestically grown food becomes more widely available. But if today’s meal is any indication, the future of Canadian cuisine is in good hands. As the two aspiring chefs check off a list of ingredients easily found in a single Prairie province, I’m struck by something Boyce had told me the day before. “As an apprentice, I had this idea that all the best food came from Europe,” he’d said, glancing at the green fields across the bay. “You rapidly grow out of that when you see what’s around you. We’re very lucky.” U]


Prepared by Kevin Boyce, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada. Wines, chosen by Craig Youdale, creator of the school’s wine program, appear in italics.

Vine-ripened tomato salad with Salt Spring Island goat cheese, shaved Jerusalem artichokes, organic baby greens and saskatoon-berry dressing (1)

2002 Reif Estate Winery Estate-Bottled Sauvignon Blanc (Niagara Peninsula)

Fireweed-honey-roasted quail with tourchon of Quebec foie gras, Newfoundland cloudberry gastrique and Niagara peach preserve (2)

2001 Château des Charmes Estate-Bottled Chard on nay (Niagara Peninsula)

Ravioli of Nova Scotia lobster and Oka cheese, grilled baby fennel and smoked tomato consommé (3)

2003 Quails' Gate Dry Riesling (Okanagan Valley)

Seared bison tenderloin with “doublewild stuffing” of Manitoba wild rice and Prince Edward Island blueberries, served with Yukon Gold potato confit and northern mushroom jus (4)

2001 Mission Hill Estate Syrah (Okanagan Valley)

Trio chocolate terrine with fresh “Territory” blackberries, blueberry honey cake and Canadian maple sugar twist (5)

2002 Inniskillin Oak Aged Vidal Ice Wine (Niagara Peninsula)