From Forage to Feast; Helping to Define the Food Identity of Canada
Updated: Jan 8, 2022
"...I felt like what I was tasting at Sauvage might start to help me define what I personally believe Canadian cuisine to be."
Something is brewing out in Canmore, and it isn’t just the many mountain breweries. Tucked away in the mountains is a secret gem, new(ish) to town, and full of exciting possibilities. What was once the beloved Tapas restaurant in a former coal miner’s home, has since been transformed into the Sauvage (meaning “natural or “wild”) restaurant. Nestled just off of Main Street Canmore, this quaint old home now holds a new and unique food concept. We recently dined there and as I found myself trying the intriguing dishes, I kept thinking to myself, is this what Canadian food is? The concept of Canadian food is loose in interpretation. Some believe that Canadian food identity lies within its indigenous roots, but few people truly know what indigenous food is. It changes drastically across this vast nation, from region to region, from land to sea. I found a deep connection with the food from Sauvage and the land itself. While difficult to pinpoint, the dishes at Sauvage truly made me feel as though I was tasting the flavours and stories of Canadian cuisine…
When speaking to others and asking what they think is truly “Canadian food”, you will often be met with the familiar answers of “poutine”, “nanaimo bars”, “maple syrup”, and so on... Undoubtedly these foods are Canadian icons, but do they truly represent the food of the place, of the land? I teach a “Canadian Heritage Foods” module to my introductory grade 10 foods students. While I appreciate the openness of the guiding provincial curriculum, it asks students to examine “early Canadian regional and/or ethnic Canadian foods”. But what exactly does that mean? The word “land” is not mentioned in the curriculum, which I believe to be synonymous with the food of any nation. That’s why I felt like what I was tasting at Sauvage might start to help me define what I personally believe Canadian cuisine to be. Let’s start off with the bread course. In many restaurants, this could be an afterthought, but not here. The bread dish was composed of three homemade breads, including spruce ash focaccia and pine flour sourdough. Even the breads made a distinct connection to “place”. Other dishes that highlight the terroir of region include the bison carpaccio (with crickets [yes you read that right], as the chef seems to be interested in promoting sustainable choices), to the “beet” done three ways, and featuring further local proteins such as yak and elk. Special attention needs to be given to the elk rack alone, a showstopper both visually and in flavour. A mighty 16-hour braised elk rib was perched atop celery root and swede (rutabaga), served with caramelized and fried leeks, potatoes, and drizzled with a deep, rich “mother” demi. The vegetables had their moment in the spotlight too, like the roasted heirloom carrots, with goat cheese, birch syrup, and a dandelion and pistachio crumb. While some of these dishes incorporated unusual ingredients, there were some familiar comfort food options too, like the baby potatoes (with mimolette, cheddar cheese, wild boar bacon, crème fraîche, and chives) and the house made ricotta gnocchi (with Red Fox Farm mushrooms, manchego cheese, and truffle “snow”). Everything was cozy, hearty, satiating, and exactly what I wanted to be eating on a snowy night. Chef Tracy Little deeply understands seasonality and this shows in the concept of the menu, and her appreciation for supporting local is shown through the featuring of local producers and their products. Going a step further, the chef also incorporates her passion for and understanding of foraging. To me, this understanding of and ability to forage and incorporate unfamiliar ingredients into fine dining is a key component in why I found the food at Sauvage to be so intrinsically connected to the land. And, while I personally have not yet enjoyed this experience, the restaurant offers a unique “Ice Fishing Adventure” 9 course tasting menu. Situated in a heated ice fishing tent, this meal is themed around ultraviolet interactive foods. I have to say I am looking for an excuse to indulge in this highly creative experience…
"...this understanding of and ability to forage and incorporate unfamiliar ingredients into fine dining is a key component in why I found the food at Sauvage to be so intrinsically connected to the land."
Ultimately, I don’t know if anyone can truly define what our national cuisine really is. What I tasted at Sauvage makes me think Chef Tracy Little is guiding us on a path to discovering what Canadian food is and can be.