The Hippest Little Culinary Hub on the Canadian Prairie

SaskatoonSaskatoon
Liza Weisstuch

From homemade pierogies to farm-to-glass gin, bison everything and berries galore, Saskatoon should be every foodie's next destination.

Louise Black loves cheese. Like, really, really loves cheese. She talks about it with the mastery of an academic giving a dissertation, and also with the enthusiasm of a parent describing her kid's first homerun. As general manager of Bulk Cheese Warehouse, she oversees the daily bustle at the shop near the South Saskatchewan River. Despite the store's name, it's actually a modest size, and every square inch of every shelf in every case is occupied by cheese. For the most part, they're organized by country--French, Italian, Danish, English. I cannot show you what it looks like, though. There's a strict no-photo policy. Louise deems the store a "diamond in the rough" and she likes to keep it that way. (She's not kidding. Search for photos online. You'll find two images of the shop's interior. Clearly shot on the sly.)

Sampling is encouraged here. Ask for anything, she's happy to cut you a piece. She wants you to love cheese as much as she does. When I visited the store on a sunny July morning, she started waxing poetic to me about Chateau de Bourgogne, a triple cream cheese from Burgundy, France, and was nearly offended when I told her I've never had it. She immediately went behind the counter, spread a dollop on a cracker, and pushed it towards me. "It's triple cream heaven!” she exclaimed. "It’s just butter. When God created this, man, oh, man, step back!” 

Louise’s passion is merely a small sampling of the excitement that courses through this small yet vibrant city, an urban enclave surrounded by prairies and wheat fields smack in the middle of Canada. It’s a city with culinary traditions that can be traced back thousands of years to when the native people lived off the land straight up to today, as entrepreneurial types showcase their creativity at restaurants, cafes, distilleries, shops, markets, and farms.

Saskatoon-River.JPG?mtime=20170905005357#asset:97558The South Saskatchewan River cuts through the city, a culinary oasis in the middle of the Canadian prairie.

Those ancient traditions are on display at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a sprawling, majestic site with a vast crater used millennia ago for bison jumping. Native people occupied the land up to 6000 years ago (that’s about 3000 years before the Egyptians built the pyramids, by the way) and today it’s known as Canada’s longest-running archaeological dig. It’s a cultural center today where you can camp out in teepees, roam the museum-meets-art-gallery space, or try smoked bison. When I visited on a sunny day in July, I watched a descendant of the native people effortlessly slice and smoke the meat in a minimalist smoker pit the way her father taught her. When I asked whether she ever uses any seasoning, she looked at me suspiciously and retorted “You don’t disrespect the meat that way!” I tried a piece that had been over the fire for three hours. Then I understood her reverence.

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Wanuskewin Heritage Park staff demonstrates ancient methods of cutting and smoking bison meat.

She also told me about Bannock, an ancient food made from Indian bread root, which I sampled with a lunch of bison burger and Three Sisters soup, another customary food made with corn, squash, beans, and a medley of vegetables. Dry and crumbly, it was utilitarian, to be diplomatic. It's easy to understand why so many people lived by a paleo diet millennia ago.

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My carb-fueled cravings were filled later that day on a visit to Night Oven, a small but bustling bakery with piles and piles of cookies, grainy loafs of bread, baguettes, brioche, croissants, and sundry pastries stacked up in pyramids. Nearly everything is made with heritage grains that the soft-spoken owner, Bryn Rawlyk, sources from area farmers and mills in-house on a 30-inch stone mill he constructed. But to say Bryn is handy would be an understatement. Behind the cases of sweets and racks of bread, the bakers scurry around in a compact space anchored by a hulking brick oven, which Rawlyk built. It has a 9-foot dome that, he explained as I savored a gingersnap cookie, bake the loafs with radiant heat stored up in the bricks from the wood-burning fire. It imparts an only subtly smoky flavor to the bread and, you might say, a sense of heritage.

Heritage is the cornerstone of Baba’s Homestyle Perogies, a no-frills perogie joint on the side of a busy thoroughfare. There’s the option to order at the drive-through. Or you could eat in the small canteen-like eatery. The perogies are served on Styrofoam plates on plastic cafeteria trays. They are the best perogies I have ever had. (And I come from an Eastern European heritage.) Owner Rob Engel told me that he became obsessed with the dumplings through his wife’s Ukranian family. His obsession has become a wildly popular business. 

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The unassuming Baba's Homestyle Perogies turns out some of Canada's most exquisite from-scratch perogies.

He took me into the sweeping warehouse-esque kitchen behind the dining area, where two Ukrainian women were industriously scooping dough, flattening it in their palms, topping it with a potato and cheese mix, and pinching it shut with jaw-dropping speed and efficiency. They make seven different varieties. They offered—nay, forced—me to try it myself. It’s not easy, to say the least. When Rob told me that they make 5,000 to 8,000 perogies a day most days, and 12,000 to 15,000 a day during the holidays, I nearly passed out. A plate of warm Saskatoon berry perogies topped with vanilla ice cream helped revive me.

Saskatoon berries are, as you might guess, unique to this region of prairieland. Their relatively short growing season makes them a prized bounty, one worthy of celebration. My late-July visit was perfectly timed to the Saskatoon Berry Festival, which takes place at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, a year-round bazaar that's featured the local bounty and baked goods since 1975. I stopped by expecting to wander around for an hour or so. I left four hours later. Saskatoon has that classic small town atmosphere of coziness and warmth, which is to say that conversation flows easily among strangers. Wandering through the marketplace, I spoke to a woman known around town as the Prairie Pasta Lady, who offered me a sample of her signature pasta pudding, a delectably gooey concoction that could stand up to the finest bread puddings the American South. I took a photo of the recipe, but I’ve yet to try to make it myself. Some things are more delicious when you’re not aware how much heavy cream is involved.

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The Prairie Pasta Lady, a fixture at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market, is known for her variety of homemade pasta.

I chatted with a woman who sells dips and spreads inspired by her Polish parents who served dill dip with every meal when she was growing up. That day she had Saskatoon berry cream cheese on offer alongside her own rendition of her mother’s dill dip and a few other savory spreads. I was regaled with the various health benefits of sea buckthorn berries, acidic orange morsel that grow on shrubs in Canada, Russia and China. The superfood is the calling card of local company NVigorate, which uses it to make juices, jams, vinegar, syrup, and lotion.

But it was what appeared to be the most unassuming-looking women that left the biggest impression. Jean, who has short-cropped hair, cat’s eyes glasses, and a wide toothy grin, was busily organizing jars of salsas and sauces on her table while two young teenage boys clowned around behind her. She firmly warned them to settle down. They did. When your aunt the kind of woman who buys thousands of pounds of cabbage at a time and ferments it for three weeks to make sauerkraut or shows up to the market each week with anywhere between 33 and 50 cases of mason jars of her handmade condiments, from her “million-dollar relish” to an array of salsas to the crowd-pleasing red pepper variety, you listen when she tells you to behave.

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Sisters-in-law Jean and Dorothy sell baked goods, homemade salsas, relishes, perogies and more each week at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market.

"They’re my nephews, I want them to learn. If they wanna earn money, they’ve gotta work for it,” she told me as I browsed her offerings. Jean lives on a farm where she grows wheat and grain and fruit and if anyone can teach work ethic to young people, she can. Jean told me that she has a computer in her house but she hasn’t used it in three years. She works 12 to 15 hours a day except on Sundays. “That’s when I nap,” she concedes. Also, Jean is 74. She did, however, work the prior Sunday because she had to pick 24 pails of Saskatoon berries in a day in preparation for the weekend's festival. She pointed to the other end of the table at a tall woman with high cheek bones and auburn hair done up tidily. That’s her husband’s sister Dorothy, a former professional ballroom dancer and flight attendant. She made 175 Saskatoon berry pies for this weekend, baking them 35 at a time. Dorothy is 87. 

Jean's farm is over an hour away, but Black Fox Farms, which was selling gins and liqueurs at a table nearby, sprawls out across a valley alongside the Saskatoon River. It's just a quick drive from the center of the city, but I would have willingly spent lots more time on the road to get there. For husband-and-wife owners John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, running the 80-acre farm is something of a homecoming. John started his farming career 100 miles north, then moving to Mexico and then to Chile, from where he commuted to Kazakhstan. True story. Barb, meantime, is an award-winning soil scientist. 

Little wonder that John waxed rhapsodic about a head-spinning array of topics when he guided me and my friend across the property: the misconceptions of organic farming (“The truth lies somewhere in the middle—it’s not just about organic farming, but also using good genetics.”); grape breeding (“My job is to kill them. If I can’t kill them, they’re pretty hardy. It’s old-fashioned breeding. We’re just guessing.”); the start of their floral business (Barb got 30,000 daffodil bulbs at an auction. They grow about 12,000 lilies annually and hold a Lily Festival each July to celebrate. Peonies are their biggest crop today.); and haskap berries, a tart pod that looks like a cross between a blueberry and a tiny sugar snap pea and tastes like the platonic ideal balance of sour and sweet. (They’re made from two flowers blooming on both ends and they can take a frost of minus-8 degrees.) And so on. 

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Veteran farmers John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, blend traditional and progressive farming methods on their 80-acre Black Fox Farm, where they grow about 90% of the ingredients they use to make gin, liqueur, and whiskey in their distillery.

All that farming has led up to the couple’s newest endeavor: Black Fox Farm Distillery. Nearly 90% of the ingredients they use in their three gins and various liqueurs are grown on the property. “Anything edible is likely to be pickled and used in a gin recipe,” John told me, ticking off calendula flower, rhubarb, to name a few. One of the gins he produces, the lightly aged Oaked Gin Barrel Two, won top honors at the 2017 World Gin Awards. I picked up a bottle of it as well as a bottle of Saskatoon berry and wildflower honey liqueur and a jar of unpasteurized, unfiltered honey. I couldn't wait to get it home and share it with my friends. It was the least I could do to spread Saskatoon's bounty around. 

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