Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cambridge Bay, Nunavut: Local Food Adventures Above the Arctic Circle!

Some of my readers may have noticed a bit of a drop-off lately in my postings. I have a really good excuse for this: I've been in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, accompanying Paul Finkelstein and his Stratford Northwestern Secondary School's Culinary Arts class (aka the Screaming Avocado gang, featured on the Food Network series Fink) on an absolutely unbelievable school exchange!

For a few months last spring, I worked with Paul at the Screaming Avocado Cafe, where his class cooks lunch from scratch to sell to other students on a daily basis. One of the things I helped out with was writing grants to make his ambitious food education ideas become reality. I think Fink must have noticed my taking a particularly keen interest when working on an application for the YMCA and Heritage Canada's Youth Exchange program, which supports students from all over Canada traveling to each other's communities. He was bringing his class to visit students at Kiilinik High School in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and then hosting the Nunavut school group when they came back to Ontario. One day he just came right out and asked me: Do you want to come to Nunavut with us? I think I said 'yes' before he'd even finished the question...

Flash forward four months and I'm on a plane bound for Edmonton with fifteen stoked foods students, Paul Finkelstein, and SNSS's intrepid principal Ms. (Deborah) McNair.  

We stopped over in Edmonton on the first night of our long journey. Our adventures in Northern cuisine began that night in fine style, as we were all invited over to the home of fellow food fanatics Steve and Twyla. These friends of Paul's had been the first to encourage him to set up the exchange to Cambridge Bay. I hit it off right away with Twyla, who as it turns out is an avid Edmonton food blogger, travel writer and radio restaurant critic (check out her blog It's A Weird, Wild and Wonderful Life, in particular her own postings on her experience accompanying us to Cambridge Bay). 

Upon arriving at their home, we were presented with what can only be called a true Northern feast, with gorgeous baked Arctic char, muskox carpaccio, and a melt-in-your-mouth muskox roast that had been cooked using the sous vide method for two and a half days! This taste of things to come really whet the appetites of some of our more adventurous young foodies, who weren't shy to comment: "This is da bomb!!" Check out the Screaming Avocado blog that was kept during the trip for some pics of this fun and delicious evening.

The next day it was off to Cambridge Bay... kind of. We got there but couldn't land due to ice fog, so we headed back to Yellowknife where we spent the evening in a hotel. Fortunately, the following day saw clear skies for us to land at our destination. The kids were greeted by their exchange partners, and lifelong friendships were forged almost instantly! For luck (and out of gratitude that we had finally made it!) we all kissed the airport's famous stuffed muskox!

When we go for a little walk,
Out on the land,
When we're just walkin' and holdin' hands,
You can take it as a sign of love.
- Neil Young, 'Sign of Love' (2010)

The next day we were introduced to several of the remarkable Elders of the Cambridge Bay community, who took us all for an adventure on the frozen, treeless tundra. We all loaded-up into long sleds that are pulled behind snowmobiles (known as qamutiks), and headed "Out on the land".
Many of the vast caribou herds of Nunavut spend their spring and summer on Victoria Island (upon which Cambridge Bay is located), then after the fall mating season they cross the ice of the Northwest Passage and spend the winter foraging on the mainland. Our trip was timed to correspond with the caribou waiting to cross the ice, and we were not disappointed as many small herds had gathered along the south coast for us to see!
We returned to the Elders' camp to find that they had prepared a hearty caribou stew and delicious bannock bread to warm all of our bones!
I particularly enjoyed cutting away pieces of garnet-red frozen caribou to eat raw, which is an Inuit staple known as quak.

Ah hey, ma ma ma
Life in a Northern town.
- Dream Academy, 'Life in a Northern Town' (1985)

The next day we met up again with the Elders, who taught the students how to clean some dazzlingly colourful Arctic char using a traditional  crescent shaped cutting tool known as an Ulu.
The fish were filleted, and the golden flesh was scored before the sides were all placed on a wooden rack for drying - a simple Inuit technique for curing fish known as piffy (pronounced 'biffy').
The piffy that everyone prepared was destined for the community feast that was planned for our last night in Cambridge Bay.

We then visited one of the only processing plants in Canada that handles muskox and Arctic char. Muskox isn't back in season until February (we tried so hard to see them, but to no avail... so we've dubbed them "the Snuffaluffagus of the North") but there was lots of char being smoked.
We got some candied smoked char (smoked with a glaze of brown sugar), which was appropriate because at  a fish smoking plant using such incredible wild product I did feel just like a kid in a candy store!
Besides the upcoming community feast there was another dining event that was being planned: the Screaming Avocado crew brought along some Perth County pork loins and preserves, and Fink quickly organized a fundraiser dinner for the next night to help pay for some of the activities he has planned on the Ontario end of the exchange. To promote the event, Paul and I were invited to the local radio station, where we quickly filled the airways with news of  tomorrow's feast, and I even delivered some important public service announcements:
That night, we were invited to the community centre to enjoy some traditional drum dancing and throat singing. When the ornately costumed performers invited members of the audience to participate in the dance, SNSS student Barry and I jumped to our feet and gave it a go! Check out the Screaming Avocado blog from that day for some video of us trying to keep up.

And I'll come and catch her
- Caribou, 'Leave House' (2010)

The next day, the Elders gave us all an authentic taste of what survival above the Arctic Circle is really about: 'catching' caribou. Anyone who has issues about hunting wild game needs to realize that for thousands of years hunting caribou, seals, whales and muskox (and fishing for Arctic char) has basically been the only viable source of food for the Inuit. When I visited the local Cambridge Bay grocery store and saw the prices of food I experienced some serious sticker-shock ($4.25 for a can of soup?!?). Families in Cambridge Bay today continue to survive economically and nutritionally by hunting wild game, and it was a real privilege for our group to be invited along on a hunt. The Elders "caught" three caribou that day before our eyes, and everyone was extremely impressed as they expertly butchered the animals on the snow, packed the meat and hides into a qamutik, and brought it all back for the next night's community feast.
That evening it was time for the Screaming Avocado gang to do their thing and serve up a feast of their own to the hungry Northerners who attended the fundraiser dinner. The kids worked together with their Arctic 'twins' to cook and serve an impressive four-course meal. 
It began with an amuse of citrus marinaded Arctic char tartare, (basically an Arctic char ceviche) proceeded by a phyllo pastry filled with fennel roasted pork belly and goat's cheese. The entree was a beautiful pork loin with potato cake and honey glazed carrots. Everyone went crazy over the dessert, which was a puff pastry with whipped cream and a Saskatoon berry preserve Paul had scored from August's Harvest farm before we left.

We started off the final (planned) day of our  trip with breakfast at the only restaurant in Cambridge Bay. The Lodge at the Inns North served up a mean brekkie (I had a cheese omelet) but wow was it ever pricey ($14 bucks!!).  Apparently, after a little while you just stop looking at the prices...

The Kiilinik and SNSS groups spent the afternoon together making an epic community feast under the supervision of the Elders.
Elder sisters Lena and Mary showed me how the uncooked fat was the best part of the caribou, and we shared cubes of its beautiful creamy rawness as I helped cut up the previous day's hunt harvest into chunks for stewing and ribs for braising.
One of the Kiilinik students, Carly, was asked to make enough bannock bread to feed the feasting masses. She proceeded to give me a lesson in preparing and cooking authentic bannock bread, a staple of Native communities:

A few hours later and the whole town was in the gym sharing a student-and-elder-prepared meal.
 It included Arctic char both dried (piffy) and baked, along with a frozen caribou leg for quak, a sumptuous caribou stew, racks of big ol' caribou ribs, Carly's bannock, and all sorts of great sides and desserts.
The children of the town were beautifully rambunctious, the Elders were gracious and fun, and everyone else just had a great time hanging out together. We all shared in a feast that symbolized the students' experience and the friendship that was created between the youth of Stratford and that of this remarkable Far North town.

There's only one way to finish this blog post: I love Cambridge Bay.

I want to thank the students and teachers of Kiilinik High School for being such great hosts. See you in Ontario mid-November when we get to return the hospitality!!!
I want to thank Paul Finkelstein for inviting me to come on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
I want to thank the Elders for being such amazing role models for the kids and the community.
And I want to thank the Culinary Arts crew from SNSS: my new brothers and sisters in food. I saw every single one of you come a long way via this experience (and I mean that in more than just kilometers), and I consider myself privileged to have shared in this adventure with you.
I'm just sayin'...


  1. Beautiful, Steve! I really enjoyed reading this this morning, thank you so much for sharing! I can't wait for your blog after the students from Cambridge Bay visit Stratford!

  2. Awesome. Really enjoyed reading that. I'm jealous. You've now been somewhere still on my list!

  3. What an amazing adventure! Wow, did you ever make the right choice in moving to Stratford - could you have seen this trip happening any other way?

  4. Thanks Steve for being an incredible mentor and for putting the experience to words. The northern Isle of Newfoundland in the spring with a new group of Screaming Avocados? In food, Fink

  5. Check out the November 2011 issue of Canadian Living Magazine for my article on this epic adventure!!