Monday, May 16, 2011

I've got a little whale caught in my teeth: From Tundra to Table

Never thought I'd hear myself saying that---until the Arctic Foraging dinner I went to at the James Beard Foundation last Saturday night. And during the appetizer reception hour I was offered Duet of Whale an egg dish dish with a side of whale Bacon bits and fried whale blubber. In twenty years of some pretty esoteric dining where I sometimes feel I've tasted everything (twice), whale was a first.

Before anyone dashes off comments about endangered mammals, let me explain the complicated journey this proffered whale meat had taken to get here. Once every two years a lottery is held for Inuit hunters, who had a historical tradition of whale hunting, and one chosen hunter is allowed to hunt and kill a whale. The conditions are rules are lengthy, one of which is that the whale meat MUST be shared with the entire village that the hunter belongs to.
A small portion of this meat was gifted to a man who is a self-described forager, Steven Cooper, who has lived in the far north since he was eight years old. He was invited to the Beard Foundation to help prepare Saturday's meal, and generously chose to share his gift of whale meat with the guests of the foundation. Considering the rarity of this ingredient, this generous gesture wasn't lost on me.
Duet of Whale, served on porcelain hors d'oeuvres spoons.
The dish above, The Duet of  Whale, Beluga and Bowhead whale with Davis Straight shrimp caviar, had an unusual texture, the whale was chewy  and the caviar was semi-hard texture. 
The other novelty ingredient for me, was Musk Ox, and having it served thinly sliced, 
frozen and lollipop-style. It is the traditional way to eat it, and the Ninuyet find it peculiar 
to eat it any other way.

Berber dusted musk ox cube with cilantro yoghurt and papaya paste.
Up in the dining room, my eyebrows went up a few more times, when we were served smoked musk ox tongues, then pickerel topped with whitefish caviar with Haida Gwaii herring roe 
and finally dandelion te'j ice cream. 
Everyone at the table couldn't get enough of the salty Baffin Island bread, a First Nations flatbread. The texture was a little like pound cake, moist and dense. 

I was really touched to have seen some of the thirty high school students who came down from Ontario, where they are studying in a culinary mentoring program with Canada Food Network's chef Finkelstein. They were working so hard, side by side, in the tiny kitchen of the Beard Foundation.

A recent graduate (right) and a current culinary student  from Ontario work side by side on a tray of Sunny side up quail egg, fried crouton, smoked whale bits with cherry tomato.
Chef Finklestein and some of the students from his culinary mentoring program. 
It's a wonderful thing when you can come away from a local event having genuinely learnt something about a different culture that you may never have the opportunity to experience. This introduction to some First Nations culinary traditions was done in a most honoring way, motivated by a desire
 to share information their fascinating culture.  
---Monica Forrestall