Photo from: Bonjour Quebec
Follow Me Foodie to the Yukon!
Yes! Igloos! Snow! Lots and lots of snow. That’s what I expected the Yukon to look like. I knew nothing about it and when I googled images of it I was expecting to see icebergs and polar bears, but most of the images were photos of their beautiful summer. Unfortunately, but fortunately, I went during their fall (low season), which means it wasn’t that cold.
It actually looked more like this, but I saw the first snowfall of the season (yucky wet snow) and the coldest it got during early October was -1° Celsius. Apparently the coldest in the winter it gets is about -40° Celsius which is extreme. For the most part the temperature and climate seemed comparable to Calgary’s winter, but on average it is colder than Calgary although not Antarctica.
I’m from Vancouver, BC and I’ve never been referred to as “people from the south” because I never considered going up any further north. I mean doesn’t it stop in Vancouver? Everything else “up there” is all the boonies! Why would anyone want to go further up north? To own hundreds of acres of land? Maybe! I don’t think I’ve ever met so many people with so many acres of land, they talk about it like Vancouverites talk about square footage.
The Yukon might sound random and unknown (even to those living in Canadian provinces) but I’ve always been curious about it (my close friends could vouch for me). Since I live in Canada it was never a priority because “I’ll get to it someday” has always been the mentality and there was never a big desire or urgency.
However it turns out there could not be a better time to go, because it offers something a bit extraordinary (especially this winter)…
Yeah. Stunning. The Northern Lights is worth a trip alone, and although you can see them in Northern and Southern hemispheres in the auroral zone throughout the dark and cold months every year, Canadian territories are some of the top places to witness them.
To see the Northern Lights in Canada people go to the Northwest Territories or the Yukon Territories, although this year they are better in the Yukon. The Northern Lights has an 11 year solar cycle and 2013 is Yukon’s year, which means it offers the best conditions for viewing them.
The camera captures the light better and I took this on a really good point and shoot, but you need to know how to adjust your camera settings. It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust before you can see the tints of green.
I have to be honest and say I didn’t see them in ideal conditions and with the naked eye it looked a bit like this. At first all I saw were white clouds and I was so disappointed, but after a while I started to see the tints of green.
It’s much better in the winter than the fall, and in the summer you won’t even see them since it never gets dark. Being that this was my first time ever seeing the Northern Lights I thought it was beautiful, even in the fog.
It wasn’t moving so much and for locals they wouldn’t have gotten up to watch this, but for me it was amazing. And even if I missed the Northern Lights (the intensity and movement varies depending on weather) I would have been left with star gazing at the Milky Way Galaxy… I’ll settle for that too!
I was staying at the Takhini River Lodge which offers an incredible view of the Northern Lights. This photo is from a girl who was a guest staying at the same quaint bed and breakfast. She stayed up every single night just to catch the Northern Lights and then slept during the day. That’s some commitment! (See my full Takhini River Lodge experience here).
During the time I was there, the Northern Lights would be at their best from anywhere between 11 p.m. – 5 a.m. The sun rises at 8:30 a.m. which took some getting used to because at 7 a.m. it was still incredibly dark. They live in a different world up here!
Now back to the food, after all this is Follow Me Foodie to the Yukon! I was speaking about food culture and social media at the Yukon Culinary Conference hosted by Tourism Yukon and extended it a couple days to explore their food scene. I knew little about it, but the locals were keen to show it off.
They are really passionate about “eat local” , “farm to table” and sustainable concepts (which city isn’t these days?), but they face many challenges besides a short growing season.
I was only there for 5 days which doesn’t show me everything, but I got the idea considering there are only about 70-80 known restaurants in Whitehorse.
It’s a small town and tight community, but drive outside of downtown and it’s open space… and a lot of it! If you like peace and quiet, you’ll get more than enough of it here. The downtown took me about 15 minutes to walk through and the main strip was 2 blocks. On the second day I already ran into someone I met the day before. I prefer the hustle and bustle of big cities so it’s not a place I would move to, but I enjoyed my visit as a tourist and would be enthusiastic to go back.
It is not that the food scene was so amazing, because quite frankly it’s not there yet, but in the next 5 years I can see a lot of growth. Heck, even in the next year I can. Right now it’s still so raw and the culinary scene is just developing, so there’s a lot of potential and I’m excited for them.
They have some long time favourites and I had some very good food, but it’s all relative and if I’m comparing to my hometown (Vancouver, BC) there’s no comparison. However if I was coming from a smaller city than Whitehorse it would be different.
I was actually very surprised to see there was some diversity. I wasn’t expecting much ethnic cuisine, but they have three Japanese restaurants, a couple Chinese restaurants (that looked very American), a couple Mexican restaurants, a handful of Italian and one Indian restaurant. There are other ethnic eateries, but there is more or less one of each of them, so there is not a lot of competition or selection.
Apparently they have a significant Filipino population as well, but unfortunately I didn’t see any Filipino eateries. 25% of the population are Aboriginals (Native Peoples), but as a tourist it seemed segregated – on the surface at least. They are actually home to a lot of Francophones as well, but outside of my one home cooked French dinner at Takhini River Lodge, I didn’t see much representation from this either.
All of these nationalities were under represented in their food scene and I would love to see more of a celebration and influence from ethnic groups on their local cuisine. The beauty of an unique food scene comes from the diversity of people and immigration. In a young country like Canada, the Yukon has the power to really carve its own cuisine.
My lovely host Christiane at Takihini River Lodge moved willingly to the Yukon from Alsace, France. She and her husband, Jean-Marc, were looking for a stress-free lifestyle and after 6+ years, they’ve never looked back. (See my post on their search for happiness and their incredible story here).
I would have never considered dining Mexican in the Yukon, but I did. This is a local favourite and one of their only two authentic Mexican restaurants in Whitehorse, the other being La Petrona which I did not try.
Sanchez Cantina is a family owned and operated business and it was actually pretty good. I ordered Mama Sanchez’s “go-to” dish which is Beef Enchiladas with Poblanas Mole Sauce served with guacamole and beans, rice or salad (choose 2) – $22 (It’s pricey, but in the Yukon this is quite normal, I’ll explain further down the post).
Her beans are dangerously addictive and almost extra savoury and her mole sauce was made from scratch. It was similar to the Mole’ Negro Oaxaqueño I had at La Carta de Oaxaca in Follow Me Foodie to 2 Days in Seattle.
See my full post on Sanchez Cantina here.
This was Bison Stew in red wine sauce with locally grown vegetables and cranberry Bannock ($27) from Antoinette’s restaurant. It’s a local favourite serving modern Caribbean cuisine – see my post on it here.
Antoinette Hanneke learned how to cook from her Caribbean grandmother, but she’s raised in Canada so her food is Canadian-Caribbean. She also appeared on Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here!
Caribbean wasn’t first or even tenth to come to mind when thinking of dining in the Yukon, but it was very good and if you’re in the Yukon I would recommend it.
So what kind of food was I expecting? I wasn’t going to the Yukon to explore their ethnic cuisine (albeit I had good experiences), but it’s not their strength or primary appeal. I wanted to try their local cuisine and specialty dishes because I can’t get that anywhere else. I wanted game meat, Arctic Char and Aboriginal or First Nations cuisine. It might sound like the stereotype, but you go to Paris for croissants, Montreal for smoked meat, Hong Kong for dim sum, and Spain for paella, so it’s really no different here.
I was ready to get my game on (pun intended) but was actually disappointed to learn upon arrival they can’t serve fresh and local game meat in restaurants. Most of it, if not all of it, comes from Alberta. I know! I was shocked.
They do not have an abattoir to process the meat and the government only invested in a mobile abattoir in 2006, but that’s it. They have some elk farmers, but they can’t sell their elk meat due to government restrictions. I do not know the details or much of the politics, but they are afraid the farmed elk will endanger the wild elk, and the First Nations are also protective of the animals. People can hunt for animals and serve it at private and personal functions, but it cannot be retailed in any context. This article explains it better.
The most locally sourced and tasting meal I had was at the Yukon College. It was the catered lunch offered during the Yukon Culinary Forum conference and it was prepared by their culinary students with local celebrity chef, Michele Genest, leading the way.
It featured beef meatballs (bison would have been great), kale salad, bannock, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, smoked arctic char, beets, cabbage, cranberry and wild flower jellies. They foraged all their herbs, flowers and root vegetables and it had Yukon spirit and life.
I’m not comparing the other diverse options to this, and surely there is room for both, but it’s just the beginning.
I also had the opportunity to speak to local elk farmers at the forum and obviously they are frustrated with the laws. There is much more work to be done if they want to promote “eat local”, but you can still find bison, elk, and caribou on menus, but it is not likely local. The cost of local game meat would also be more expensive than outsourcing it, so there’s a lot of barriers.
Dining out in the Yukon can get pricey too, and I don’t know how much their market will bear. I understand many ingredients need to be imported which drives up the cost, so in the end the consumer pays, but it is not affordable to dine out often. Comparatively, it made dining in Vancouver seem dirt-cheap.
They do have a local food scene, but it’s expectedly most vibrant during the summer. Last year was the 1st annual The Yukon Culinary Festival and after seeing their teaser video I was convinced. It was a 5 day festival with various culinary events including a Midnight Sun Food Crawl. Here, participating restaurants celebrate the solstice by opening until 1 a.m. (the darkest it gets in the summer is dusk).
There is a lot of land up there, but the climate is dry so it’s not all garden and/or farm ready. Their most entertaining and open to public farm for locals and tourists is Rivendell Farm.
It is a certified organic farm located on the banks of the Takhini River in the Yukon. It’s about a 20 minute drive outside of downtown Whitehorse and in the summer it’s a playground for slow food advocates and families.
You can play giant chess, Farmer’s Golf, or pick your own veggies from their garden. They offer workshops, events and activities for all ages and it’s a very interactive experience. It was not in operation when I was in town, but in the summer it’s an attraction, and they plan to make it bigger and better every year.
Mijune (me) visiting Muktuk Dog Sled Adventures.
It was my first time visiting a mushers yard and 130 dogs in one day. I think these were 2 week old puppies and they were incredibly well taken care of and fed. (Story to come). They also offer bison burgers and elk sausages (not local), but it was a nice way to tie in a little culinary experience after visiting the yard. See my story on Muktuk Adventures here.
They have a lot to offer in the Yukon in terms of outdoor actives, nature, Northern Lights, and dog sledding, but the food scene is still young. The water is amazing, the local beer is impressive, and although it’s not a “culinary destination” yet, they are on the right track. They are advocating for more support for their agriculture industry and the slow food and sustainable movement is a clear focus.
They are not up-to-date with the latest food trends and I wouldn’t expect them to be. They are a few years behind Vancouver which is already a few years behind other major food cities, so naturally you’re not coming for “food trends”. On that note, there were surprisingly lots of options for gluten free.
It’s a very casual dining scene with an old fashioned feel and it is more beer than wine focused. The Yukon is a blank canvas right now, but they have so much space and passion they can do so much more, so let’s hope they do!
At its current state I would recommend visiting the Yukon in the warmer months, if it’s for the food scene, and specifically during their culinary festivals. I would love to see more local specialties, locally raised game meat, and representation from major ethnic groups. I hope they get more proactive about the initiatives because their intentions are there, at least for the first two things I mentioned.
However the Northern Lights is literally the “highlight” of the Yukon, so a trip in the Winter is a must. Between the culinary festival and the Northern Lights… it’s worthy of two trips. Mind you, I have not experienced the culinary festival, but dining at 12 am under the “midnight sun” is pretty darn unique. I can’t do that anywhere else.
Lastly, I have to give a big shout out to the water. I’m serious. Confession: I don’t really like drinking water… except when I was in the Yukon. Vancouver has good water, but next to this… wow. I could definitely tell. It was almost crisper, more refreshing and it just tasted cleaner. I think I went to the washroom at least every hour.