I have two favourite summer solstice memories. The first is playing Hearts beside the Stewart River with my sister, Anne Louise, and her partner, Anthony, in 1994, the summer I arrived in the territory. We were camped in the clearing where Anthony had spent his first two Yukon winters, in a refurbished woodcutter’s cabin, somewhere just upstream from Lake Creek. We couldn’t sleep because there was too much light in the trees and sky, so we kept dealing another hand and putting another log on the fire, keeping up a running competition to see who could guess the time most accurately. 1:30? 2:10? No, it’s not 3:00 a.m. That’s just not possible. Look at the light!
I’ll never forget that trip because I was fresh from downtown Toronto and terrified of bears. I couldn’t walk from my sister’s cabin at Policeman’s Point, on the Yukon River, to the outhouse 20 metres away without a pep talk first. In our camp beside the pearly Stewart River that solstice night, I kept looking over my shoulder into the bush until Anthony said, “You know, it’s very unlikely that a bear will come charging into camp and eat you, my dear.” Then he described bear behaviour in such a calm and realistic manner that the fear began to subside, and the entire Bear Nation rumbled and rolled out of the realm of nightmare and into the realm of creatures whose habits I could learn and understand. This was a great gift and meant I could sleep that night. Well, not really sleep, because of the light, but at least rest.
My other favourite solstice memory is of a celebration at our family cottage in Ontario, a week after my dad died, 22 years ago. My Swedish sister-in-law and my youngest brother organized a Swedish solstice feast with pickled herring, boiled potatoes, raw onions, aquavit, gravlax, salad, and lots of dill in everything. My job before supper was to pick wildflowers for the garlands we would wear around our heads. I walked down to the meadow near the sailing club where we had grown up and found grasses and wildflowers I’d never looked at closely before, whose names I didn’t know, and picked and picked until I had an armful of sweet-smelling colour.
We sat on the porch surrounded by flowers and grasses and wove five wreaths, lopsided and droopy, but still beautiful, and we took turns wearing them, passing them from head to head until they arrived on the heads of my three brothers. In my opinion, there’s nothing lovelier than men wearing crowns of flowers and smiling with that sweet openness that comes with grief, or great happiness, which is sometimes the same thing.
The paradox of summer solstice is similar. The moment of high delight in the great concentration of light coincides with the sadness that from here on the light diminishes. Well, my friends, there is consolation. In recent months, Yukon Brewing Company has concocted a spirit entitled Solstice, a grain alcohol flavoured with a combination of Yukon herbs and fruits. I don’t know why the brewmasters thought of sage, rosehips, and raspberries; maybe they were inspired by Alpenbitter, that after-dinner digestive that combines alcohol, herbs, and flowers in a recipe reportedly dating back to the Celtic druids. Perhaps someone was directed to go into the Yukon woods or up onto the clay cliffs and gather some of the wild things found there. Solstice (the drink) is interesting because each of its botanical ingredients ripens at a different time; the whole summer is represented here, from June (sage) and July (raspberries), well into late August and early September (rosehips).
Solstice by itself is a powerful flavour and not for the faint of heart. It lends itself well to mixed cocktails, but also different culinary treatments, from entrée to dessert. At a recent cooking workshop, I served ice-cold Solstice after dinner in small shot glasses to the assembled guests and learned they were familiar with the fiery liquid and had already explored different ways of highlighting the sage, the raspberry, or the rosehips. I decided to do some experiments of my own.
In these recipes, the addition of Solstice to raspberry ice cream intensifies the sour notes present in the wild raspberries and buttermilk, but you’ll be hard pressed to discern the taste of the drink. This is not true of the penne dish, inspired by the favourite 1990s combo of vodka, penne, and smoked salmon. Wild sage and rosehip purée turn the creaky classic into something new and uniquely northern; both sage and rosehip highlight the bracing flavours present in Solstice, whose slight astringency is counterbalanced by cream and sweet, ripe tomato. Remember: you don’t want to cook the smoked salmon and lose the silky texture! Pile it on top of the pasta just before adding the final dose of sauce.
I’m still looking for the right combination of liquids that will enhance the flavours present in Solstice. On the day photographer Cathie Archbould came over to shoot, we experimented with equal parts raspberry liqueur and Solstice, with a bit of orange peel for garnish, but it was way too strong. Too bad because the picture was beautiful. Now I’m working on a combination of highbush-cranberry syrup, soda, lime, and Solstice. I’ll let you know how it turns out, and, in the meantime, happy summer!
Solstice-Inspired Raspberry Ice Cream
Tip: if you use frozen raspberries, slightly thawed, you won’t have to wait as long for the mixture to chill in the fridge be- fore freezing. Note that because alcohol doesn’t freeze the ice cream takes longer to set than usual. Plan on making it the day before you want to serve.
2 cups (500 ml) wild raspberries 1 cup (250 ml) buttermilk
1 cup (250 ml) whipping cream 2/3 cup (150 ml) sugar
3 tbsp. (45 ml) Solstice
Purée raspberries with buttermilk in a food processor, and press through a sieve to remove seeds. Add whipping cream and sugar, and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add Solstice, whisk again, and pour mixture into a shallow dish. Chill in fridge until mixture is quite cold, then put in freezer. Every half an hour, for 2 1/2 hours, take the mixture from the freezer and whisk vigorously to incorporate air into the ice cream and assist in even freezing. Do this five times, and then leave to freeze fully for 6–8 hours.
Serve with chocolate--brownies, for example.
1 cup (250 ml) fresh or frozen rose hips
1 cup (250 ml) water
Bring rosehips and water to the boil, lower heat to simmer, and cook, covered, until rosehips are soft--about 20 minutes. Press through a strainer. This will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks. Use as you would tomato paste.
Makes 1/2 cup purée.
Penne with Smoked Salmon, Tomato, Cream, and Solstice
1/2 lb. (250 g) penne
3 tbsp. (45 ml) unsalted butter
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1 cup (250 ml) finely chopped onion
3 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp. (15 ml) rosehip purée (recipe follows)
1 tsp. (5 ml) artemisia frigida or pasture sage, crumbled 1/4 cup (60 ml) Solstice
1/2 cup (125 ml) 35% cream
3 tbsp. (45 ml) parsley, minced
4 oz. (125 g) smoked salmon cut into bite-sized pieces
Boil water in large pot and turn to medium to keep warm until you’re ready to cook the pasta. Melt butter over medium heat in a 9-inch cast-iron frying pan. When it’s bubbling, add onions and garlic, turn heat to medium-low, and sauté until the onion is translucent--about 5–7 minutes--then add sage. (Put the pasta on to cook now.) Add the chopped plum tomatoes and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add the rosehip purée, stir, cook for a minute, and then add the Solstice. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until the smell of alcohol subsides, and stir in the cream. Cook for a further 3 minutes, remove from heat, and reserve until the pasta is cooked and drained.
To serve, stir all but 1/2 cup of the sauce into the drained pasta, spoon into two bowls, arrange half the smoked salmon on top of each (you don’t want to cook the salmon, just warm it), pour over the remaining sauce, and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve with a green salad dressed in vinaigrette made with raspberry vinegar. Set up the deck chairs and bask.
Serves two. Y