The great thing about harvesting from the wild is every cup of blueberries or handful of dried morels comes with a story. I love the practice of writing the place and date of harvest on each bag of berries or jar of dried mushrooms. Then you can say, “Oh yes! I remember that day. There were six of us gals and two dogs, heads down amongst the blueberries on Gray Mountain on a clear September afternoon. And we saw a bear moseying along the ridge to the north. He strolled down from the ridge and disappeared into the brush below us, and we didn’t know where he was going to emerge. At our feet? Somebody said, ‘Is this going to be one of those stories you hear on the radio, when you think, Why didn’t those people just move?’”
One of the best times to tell these sorts of stories is on a lazy Sunday morning in the fall, when the harvesting season is over and friends and family surround you around a table laden with ... brunch! Sunday brunch is a brilliant invention for so many reasons: 1) the larder is bursting with good things you’ve gathered yourself; 2) you can eat well at brunch and still have time to exercise later; 3) there is always the option of a nap; 4) Sunday night angst due to Monday work or school is hours away; and 5) you get to serve and enjoy those great brunchy items that somehow don’t fit with the other meals of the day.
Let us discuss eggs. Eggs are the ideal brunch food, an excellent medium for combining diverse flavours in omelettes, frittatas, and scrambled concoctions and delicious by themselves, particularly when they come from happy chickens fed on chicken scraps and organic feed, raised locally with room to roam. Once you’ve tasted real eggs it’s hard to go back to the supermarket version.
These days, more and more Yukoners have access to great eggs sourced from artisanal farmers or friends with chicken coops. The City of Whitehorse amended its bylaws and now permits residents to raise small flocks of chickens in their backyards. (No roosters allowed though--too noisy.) My household is lucky: we have two suppliers, both good friends living outside Whitehorse city limits who keep enough chickens to feed themselves and a clutch of customers.
One of these lovely people, Sophia Marnik, is of Dutch heritage, the other, Monika Broeckx, is German. The Dutch Baby pancake featured here is dedicated to them, because both Germany and the Netherlands share the origin of this gorgeous fluffy creation, halfway between an omelette and a pancake. Sophia calls it pannekoeken and Monika calls it apfelpfannkuchen (Monika’s mom cooks hers on the stove rather than in the oven) and by both names it is equally fabulous.
Usually Dutch Baby pancakes are sweet, but I invented a savoury version the morning my husband said, “Do you fancy an omelette with some lovely shaggymane dust?” (He is crazy for throwing the small, broken bits of dried shaggymane mushrooms that collect in the bottom of the jar into everything you can think of--pasta dishes, soups, cream sauces, and omelettes.) I wanted pancakes, so we compromised--and a new dish was born.
The other brunch-y item highlighted here is a second happy marriage of wild mushrooms and fresh, organic eggs. This time it’s the honourable morel mushroom, which is plentiful in the Yukon in burn areas the year after the fire and coveted by the international mushroom market. (Last July, black morels were selling at $10 for 28 grams at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse.) Every spring, professional and amateur mushroom pickers converge on burn areas, especially when they’re easily accessed by road or river.
In the summer of 2011, my husband and I floated down the wide, peaceful section of the Yukon River, from the north end of Lake Laberge through to Carmacks. Not far from Hootalinqua, we paddled around a corner into a silent world of blackened trees and scorched earth. Our first thought was, Yikes. Our second was, Morels! We ferried over to shore, but as we drew closer we saw there was still smoke rising from the ashy ground.
One year after the burn, in June 2012, we went back down the river with morels in mind once again, and there we saw firsthand the magic of regeneration. The once silent, smoking landscape was transformed. Alder leaves shot up at the base of burned birch and spruce. On the hillside above our campground we climbed through green meadows of arnica, lungwort, and fireweed. On the riverbanks--where the morels were richest--we came across miniature landscapes of hills and valleys, with morels of all sizes tucked into the hollows made by tree roots. It was dreamlike.
For two days we picked mushrooms, identified flowers, watched birds, and made a scientific study of the morel-picking culture that surrounded us: the riverboats, the drying camps, the size-11 boot marks in the soil. We came home with four large sacks of black morels and dried them on tarps covered in muslin. (Next year, we’ll be better prepared with baskets and drying screens.) Now we’re looking forward to a year of mushroom experiments. Here for your enjoyment is Oeufs en Cocotte, the first experiment of the season, and the consensus is two thumbs up. You can really taste both the eggs and the mushrooms, and it’s an utter triumph.
NOTE: Look for shaggymane mushrooms in disturbed ground in open areas. Black morels are available commercially at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse into early September. Mushroom expert David Arora advises that it's good policy to cook morels before eating them, as some related species (false morels) are highly-toxic raw. As always, be sure of your identification before eating wild mushrooms. A good resource is Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified or his field guide All That the Rain Promises and More. Finally, make sure your guests know what they’re eating; some people don’t respond well to wild mushrooms.