Is there a culinary revival occurring in Saskatchewan?
When the most comprehensive book on Nordic cuisine yet printed in the English language was published last fall, its beautiful, austere images immediately reminded me of Saskatchewan. The landscapes of the two regions are far from identical, but both can feel stark and remote.
Chef Magnus Nilsson, author of The Nordic Cookbook, helms Sweden’s famed Fäviken restaurant, where meals are made only of what can be foraged, fished or hunted locally.
Nilsson’s five-and-a-half-pound tome, however, extends well beyond the reach of his restaurant. Inspired by travels throughout Denmark, The Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, the book is his take on Nordic home cooking and an anthropological study of culinary culture in the region.
Many of the 700-plus recipes, which range from generations to centuries old, are built around single, regional ingredients. A small but mouth-watering sample: creamed potatoes with dill, stew of shaved reindeer meat, poached pike with horseradish, sweet-and-sour brown beans, lingonberry cream, and nettle soup.
The Nordic Cookbook also evokes the simplicity and deliciousness of the dishes prepared by my prairie-based grandmother. The growing season in Sweden, like Saskatchewan, is limited. Root-cellaring, preserving and zero-waste were a necessity before refrigeration and modern mass-transportation.
By the 1980s, however, a typical diet in Saskatchewan included little of what was available locally. Unless you were lucky to have contact with elders who told about and taught the old ways, your sense of the possibilities for a local food culture — or what southern US chef Sean Brock, author of 2014’s Heritage cookbook calls “the taste of a place” — were likely limited.
In Saskatchewan, as in many places, a homogenized food supply inflicted a loss of local distinctiveness. Industrial mediocrity set in, and for decades processed and imported foods dominated the shelves of grocery store chains. This included many products that were, ironically, made from ingredients originally grown in the province, such as prepared French or American mustards, lentil soup canned in Italy, and flour or oats milled south of the border.
Looking back on a childhood in Saskatchewan, I’m surprised how little we consumed — let alone celebrated — the local bounty. Instead, the focus was on exporting agricultural commodities, while neglecting our own dinner plates. I was fortunate to sit on my grandmother’s kitchen counter and watch while she canned crab apples, made chokecherry jam, holiday fruitcake, mustard relish or horseradish using ingredients from her garden. When I’m in the kitchen today, I can still hear her saying, “In my time, it was shameful to open a can to make a meal. Now, people almost expect you to do it.”
Former winner of Top Chef Canada Dale MacKay returned home to Saskatoon three years ago to open Ayden Kitchen and Bar. On the eve of launching a second establishment in the city, he discussed approaches to prairie cuisine and the health of a local food culture.
“It’s changed significantly in the last five years, and especially the last couple of years. People are now seeking out other food, and they expect more. They’re using local veg and local small farmers for meat. That kind of thing has definitely hit home here. I honestly think it’s much easier to do that here than it is even in BC because we have so many Hutterites and Mennonites who’ve been farming organic and local for as long as they’ve been here. That’s where we buy a ton of our veg and meat. They’re local providers, and they haven’t changed. They’re not trying to hit the cool stride of it; they’ve been doing it forever. So I call them — they’re the original hipsters. That culture has always been here,” says MacKay.
MacKay was executive chef at Daniel Boulud’s famed Vancouver restaurant Lumière for four years. Prior to that he worked for Gordon Ramsay in London, Tokyo and New York. This spring, he opened a second restaurant in Saskatoon, Little Grouse on the Prairie. We thought we’d ask him about living local and the prairies culinary revival.
Is there a culinary revival occurring in Saskatchewan?
“The idea of Saskatchewan is blowing up everywhere across North America right now, because of the fact that grains and pulses — lentils and legumes, are finally cool and hot. The UN declared 2016 the international year of the pulse. 100 percent of the lentils in Canada grow in Saskatchewan. Something like 65 percent of the world’s pulse crops come from here. The statistics are crazy. Even in New York people are getting these cool heritage lentils and putting ‘grown in Saskatchewan’ right on their menus. Now it’s cool to be from Saskatchewan,” says MacKay.
The quality of local ingredients, first and foremost says MacKay, sets Saskatchewan apart in culinary terms.
“When I lived in New York I also worked for Daniel Boulud and the head baker there went out of his way to make sure he was getting mostly — it was all Canadian, but specifically milled Saskatchewan flour. It really is the best. There’s obviously something in our soil that makes growing here one of the best places in the whole world when it comes to certain things. Potatoes from here just taste different than they do elsewhere. Same as our carrots — I think garden carrots from Saskatchewan are the sweetest and tastiest carrots there are. You can taste it in the vegetables. We might not have the most exotic things here, but the things we have are very good. Asparagus for instance, I don’t think many people realize asparagus grows here but the local asparagus is delicious. We went through almost 200 lbs during asparagus season.”
What can be done to continue fostering a local food culture?
“Farmers’ markets and things like that becoming so popular helps. We have a permanent farmers’ market downtown, and that is open three days a week. During the growing season there are other farmers’ markets around the city too. People are starting to realize they’ll pay much less or the same amount from these markets and they get way better veg than at the grocery store. It has to happen naturally. It’s like the gluten fad — not everyone is going to jump on board. But I think people are just starting to do it naturally.”
Restaurants and chefs also help bring the public’s attention to fresh ways of thinking about cuisine. MacKay, and others such as Christie Peters and Kyle Michael of Saskatoon’s The Hollows restaurant, are doing a great deal to showcase the local cuisine and expand the definition of what’s possible within the province.
“Yesterday we got in half a bison. We also get whole pigs and whole lamb, whereas I don’t think that’s previously really been done much in Saskatchewan as far as chefs or restaurants go. We do our best to get whole animals and do it that way.”
Books can also help highlight a local brand of cuisine and inspire new generations, as with The Nordic Cookbook. If a similar review and study is undertaken in Saskatchewan — from First Nations cuisine, to the influences of Ukrainian, eastern European and other homesteaders, I’ll be first in line to buy it.