The food culture of the Gulf Islands has become one of the region’s biggest selling points in recent years, with local chefs making the most of ingredients sourced at produce markets and farms.
Television has started to take notice of the bounty: Salt Spring memorably became a star player on the Food Network’s Chuck and Danny’s Road Trip show last year. Recent filming for an Aboriginal Peoples Television Network program called Moosemeat & Marmalade now shifts the focus to ingredients that can be sourced in the wild as hunted, foraged and cooked by “odd-couple” hosts Art Napoleon and Dan Hayes.
Moosemeat & Marmalade, which kicks off its third season on Jan. 18 with an episode filmed partly on Russell Island, has the pair travel to different locations, prepare locally sourced foods and share their creations with the resident community. Recipes are provided on the show’s website for every dish, allowing viewers to try beaver and bison when it’s an episode led by Napoleon, or lamb and Devon cream in a trip back to Hayes’ home turf in the U.K.
Hayes and his wife own the Victoria business The London Chef, which combines a culinary school, catering business, restaurant and fine ingredient commissary. Hayes may have grown up attending English boarding schools and summering on the Spanish islands, but he is a keen lifelong hunter and fisher.
Napoleon shares writer and producer credits as well as hosting the show. His multifaceted career includes Cree singer-songwriter, teacher, hand-picked chief and activist. Now based in Victoria, he grew up in Saulteau First Nation in the northeastern corner of B.C. His grandmother, a full-blooded Dane-zaa woman, taught him the ways of the bush, including hunting and cooking.
After several years working together, Napoleon is willing to admit that his ways are rubbing off on his TV partner, who was trained in Europe’s fine dining establishments.
“He’s trying to copy my style,” Napoleon joked in an interview with the Driftwood. “I notice he’s trying to get more rustic with his dishes.”
Napoleon has also learned some techniques from Hayes. He finds it interesting that Western chefs have a very different way of butchering animals into cuts of meat than traditional First Nations methods, for example. But it’s safe to say much of the education is centred on Napoleon’s knowledge of the Canadian wild and the best ways to prepare food outside over a fire.
“Everything is controlled in a kitchen. You can just set the oven to the temperature that you want and it’s consistent, and same with the burners,” Napoleon observed.
With a wood fire outdoors, it’s a much longer process that starts with knowing what type of wood to use and how big the pieces should be. Many hours of burning might be necessary to bring it down to coals.
“You have to know how to handle the flame. And if you’re good at it, you’ll probably get some burns on your hands and smoke in your eyes,” Napoleon said.
Knowledge of types of meat and the cuts that work best for each animal is also essential. That carries back right to the field dressing process after a hunt. As Napoleon notes, “How it’s going to be cooked determines how you cut it.”
Bison works well for grilling a Western style steak, but moose requires something cooked for a longer time with liquid, such as a stew or slow cooker.
One of the causes that Napoleon is active in promoting is Indigenous food sovereignty, which essentially means ensuring that First Nations people have access to Canada’s native plants and animals. First Nations cultures are centred around food, and often a single animal was crucially important.
For the people of northeastern B.C. that was the moose. Napoleon said it was not just the main food source but also provided material such as sewing thread from sinews, and ropes made from thicker tendons as well as hides. Even the hair was used.
Indigenous plants are less well-known to Canadians but were also important to First Nation cultures. Many species have since disappeared or are endangered, such as some varieties of berries and the camas plant. Napoleon says it is important to protect and preserve what’s left, from an environmental perspective as well as a cultural one.
“It’s important that we restore some balance. We need to find ways to enhance the growth of our natural food source — and we think that’s good for everybody,” he said.
Napoleon points out that First Nations have been careful managers of food resources — in contrast to the passive “gatherer” concept. The season three premiere of Moosemeat & Marmalade filmed on Russell Island highlights that fact well, as it delves into the history of the Coast Salish clam gardens. Napoleon and Hayes visited the area with Parks Canada staff and First Nations elders involved in a clam bed restoration project. Their final feast with clams harvested in the local waters took place on Tsartlip First Nation.
Hayes takes the reins for the second island episode, which airs on Jan. 25. Although the production team had considered hunting fallow deer on Mayne Island, complications sent them to take a feral goat on Saturna instead. Their final meal, with Hayes’ goat curry recipe, was filmed in the narrow confines of Wild Thyme’s double-decker bus cafe.
Napoleon said that whether it’s his or Hayes’ turn to lead an episode, the focus is always primarily on the cultural aspects of food rather than a cooking tutorial. Viewers in turn have welcomed the opportunity to educate themselves about traditional practices.
“Indigenous food is a big subject and a very interesting one. So we’re just happy to create awareness,” Napoleon said.