When in Canada, I'm reminded that the few meats normally served in the U.S. (chicken, beef, pork, maybe lamb) do not offer variety. Elk, wild boar, musk ox, bison, and, my favorite, caribou—that's variety. Those are on many Canadian menus, prepared with high-French simplicity and elegant presentations. The tastes are sublime and also have universal appeal. Sadly, what Canada doesn't eat is exported to Europe and Asia, not over the border. There's no U.S. demand.
Instead of offering such a manifestly natural (and delicious) selection of meats, the menus back in Boston, where I live, contain a blizzard of terms— "free range", "organic", "hormone-free"—for the same chicken raised many (perhaps) different ways. At best the terms oversimplify, and there's always the possibility of outright deception, as is the case with ongoing discoveries of fake organic foods from China (and certainly less far-flung places).
Restaurants that choose to follow the simple and sensible maxim "always buy local, try to buy organic" may find it difficult when diners want everything, all the time. But every locality has enough native options— new and exciting ones at that (now, and even in winter) —to keep diners interested. We just aren't eating them: grouse here, paw-paws there, callaloo, rabbit, mulberries, elk, caribou.
Some restaurants are figuring this out and creating spectacular and financially successful menus from indigenous ingredients like farm-raised game. Farming game meat in America is fully supported by U.S. law, though very few farms are in operation here. Plus, according to the FDA and the USDA, game meats farmed elsewhere in the world "can only be imported from countries and plants approved by the United States." Luckily, Canada is such a country, with "inspection requirements at least equal to U.S. requirements." All of the animals mentioned in the article (and other truly weird ones, like yak) are legal. And the rewards for diners, and communities, are great.
Still, it requires creativity to adjust to the vagaries of local supply. For instance, this year, my beloved caribou is not on the menu at Toronto's La Palette, or at any of the restaurants from Halifax to Idaho that normally serve the famously tender, mild, purple-black medallions and steaks. "Customers will call months in advance trying to reserve a night when it's served." explains La Palette's executive chef, Brook Kavanagh. "The texture is melt-in-your-mouth. It has a long-lasting, deep, minerally flavor. It's an experience like an excellent wine."
Why caribou herds are not producing well this year is, of course, a matter of dispute. The animals become skittish around noise and movement, which disturbs mating and grazing (they like lichen that grows on rocks). The development of Canada's vast oil sands in northern Alberta may also be problematic for the herds that migrate there. But as Shamez Amlani, La Palette's owner, explains, "By eating the caribou you're saving it. It's a threatened species in some areas." A delicious one, too.
La Palette's côtes du sanglier, hickory-smoked wild boar ribs with a Canadian whisky and maple syrup demi-glace, is also a revelation. Wild boar ribs look like familiar pork ribs, but I find the tender meat to be lighter-tasting, less fatty, and more flavorful. Light enough to be accompanied by a competent but unassuming Ontario Pinot Noir. My dining partner, a rib aficionado, called them the best ribs he had ever tasted.
The wild boar is farm-raised ("wild boar" is the species name), as is the restaurant's elk. An excellent tenderloin is served with a juniper demi-glaze alongside chanterelle mushrooms, wild blueberries, and heirloom carrots. In the winter, a root cellar (sadly, so few still exist in the U.S.) continues to provide local turnips, beets, carrots, winter squash, and the like. During one of my trips to La Palette, Marc Eber, a very-animated local mushroom-hunter, stopped by to sell the results of his trampings through Ontario's northern woods and "mushroom trails" (10 different species).
Not only are restaurants like La Palette introducing diners to fabulous new tastes and experiences—they're also connecting them to the places where they live. As an unfortunate percentage of Canadian meat is exported (like much of the dark meat from our impossibly large-breasted chickens), American diners are missing out. The local elk, wild boar, bison, escargot, and grouse are—to use a term that understates the complexity of their tastes—very approachable. Those tastes, and the enthusiasm of chefs, should be enough to combat the idea that anything not available in a U.S. supermarket should be fed only to Andrew Zimmern.
One diner told me that the first time she tasted caribou—done in a simple French-traditional preparation—she could taste the subtle rock lichens that form a large part of the caribou's diet in the wild. While everyone may not have such a CSI-like appreciation for caribou dishes, that kind of connection seems to be just what the animal needs to flourish: some new thinking, and a lot of love.