It’s not hard to fathom the challenges of feeding oneself in northern Manitoba during the fur trappers’ heyday. But when visiting the nearly 300-year-old Prince of Wales Fort on Eskimo Point, where the Churchill River flows into Hudson Bay, the image becomes even clearer.
It’s mid March, -20 C but the wind chill makes it feel nearly 10 degrees cooler. It’s around 9 p.m. and the sun has been down for hours here at 58 degrees north latitude. Outside, snow drifts pile up along the fort’s 6.5-metre high, 11-metre thick limestone walls.
This former Hudson’s Bay Company post was critical to moving traded goods between even further reaches of the Canadian hinterland and modern England. In these frosty winter dinner hours, with a grumbling stomach, one wonders what meager fare might have been on offer — the likes of preserved local fruits and vegetables, salted fish and meats.
Wonder no more. A taste of the fur trader’s existence — both literal and figurative — is the highlight of the latest offering from Frontiers North Adventures, the Winnipeg-based company that’s been hosting wildlife and northern lights tours near Churchill, Man., a 30-minute drive across the frozen river from the fort via custom-built bus-meets-monster-truck Tundra Buggy since 1987.
RAW:churchill, a “pop-up” restaurant/culinary and cultural experience, was the brainchild of John Gunter, president and CEO of Frontiers North, and Joe Kalturnyk, an architect, founding director of Winnipeg’s RAW:Gallery of Architecture and Design and a co-founder of RAW:almond, a temporary eatery built at the Forks (the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers) in Winnipeg that has run for nearly three weeks each January and February since 2013.
Last summer, Gunter, Kalturnyk and Duane Collins, interpretation coordinator for Wapusk National Park and Manitoba northern national heritage sites, first discussed the idea of hosting a similar event at the Parks Canada-managed Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site. The timing for such a marquee experience in such an iconic location seemed particularly meaningful with Canada poised to celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2017 and the Hudson’s Bay Company just a few years shy of its 350th anniversary in 2020.
Some nine months later, 20 guests are seated in the middle of the fort on fur draped wooden boxes around a 40-foot-long wooden dinning table under a visually stunning (courtesy of Kalrunyk) gently curving A-frame longhouse-type structure partly covered in clear vinyl (such that the northern lights might be visible overhead). Jägermeister is served up to toast the kickoff of (and warm up for) the one-of-a-kind event. Gunter and co. plan to run RAW:churchill each March until 2020.
“Our intent was really to prove to ourselves that we could do this,” says Gunter between courses during the first evening of the 2016 experience.
The “surprise” menu (part of the pop-up restaurant mystic) boasts fare inspired by many of the hallmark eats fur traders likely feasted on hundreds of years earlier in this very spot, along with other more modern Manitoba favourites. With chef Mandel Hitzer, the other co-founder of RAW:almond and owner of Winnipeg’s popular Deer + Almond restaurant, manning the kitchen, however, the food is presented in an undoubtedly more sophisticated and delectable fashion.
The seven-course menu boasts foie gras ("of prince and geese", according to the menu), bison ("leonardo carpaccio"), chicken soup ("sir campbell’s soup"), Manitoba goldeye and bone marrow with a beet sauce ("don’t have a midas cow man"), seaweed noodles, scallops and cured rainbow trout roe ("the old mare and the sea"), cured walleye and local root veggies ("pickerel, you brought her") and beet ice cream — unbelievably delish! — with wild blueberries ("eat your vegetables").
The meal’s replete with a wine list of suitable accompaniments, and Parks Canada’s Collins decked out as English explorer and Hudson’s Bay Company man Samuel Hearne, circa the 1760s, sharing local history. It’s near midnight when he announces the northern lights are showing. The diners clamber out to the ramparts to marvel at the flickering night sky — surely just as breathtakingly wondrous over the fort in this frozen land today as they would have been hundreds of years ago.