One traveller’s exploration of a Parisian crêperie in Canada’s Yukon Territory
A few years ago, I was a hungry backpacker seeking a cheap breakfast in Paris.
A hotplate hanging out of a café window, borderline spilling onto the Parisian street, proved unavoidable to me. I swung by the open front window of Au P’tit Grec in the Latin Quarter, called out for a crêpe filled with a fried egg with veggies (who needs an Egg McMuffin anyways?), and watched, each time as fascinated as the first, the elegant process. Crêpe batter spun with great yet casual precision upon the hot plate, egg cracked directly onto the browning batter and cooked through resonant heat, a handful of lettuce and tomato slices added at the final moment, and then the inevitable fold and handoff.
Parisian street food at its finest, and since then, the standard by which I measured all future crêpes.
Unfortunately that measurement proved few and far between. Stumbling upon a crêperie in Canada, at least outside of Quebec, is a rare occurrence. An occasional farmers’ market, a fortuitous discovery in Montreal, a bumbling homemade attempt at recreating a memory; these all presented little opportunity to enjoy something that Parisians enjoyed daily.
Needless to say, I did not expect to find Parisian-style crepes in the Yukon, let alone one that blends French lineage with a creative locally-minded twist that just heightened its appeal.
But such a place exists in Canada’s Far North. Café Balzam sits just outside of Whitehorse, tucked away beside the popular Takhini Hot Springs and amidst the imposing Yukon landscape. What Au P’tit Grec offered in terms of Parisian quintessence, Café Balzam matched through “farm-to-table”‘ sustainability, local ingredients, and a strong community-minded ethos.
“Our locally-focused menu features lots of authentic boreal flavours that revealed themselves through unique homemade preparations,” said Thibault Rondel, co-owner of the cafe. “Those are traditionally based on northern products such as wild berries and mushrooms, spruce tips, wild roses, or even dandelions. All of those wild products are sustainably hand-harvested by locals, hiking year-round with passion and expertise through their beloved northern backyard.”
“Traceability” is a cornerstone of Café Balzam’s support for Yukon breeders, farmers, butchers and mongers. The cafe even makes use of its own greenhouse during the warmer months. Thibault stands confident that it is all worth the extra effort.
“Although it’s a challenge to develop this way in the Great North, most of our partners practice organic and sustainable farming and agriculture across the territory,” he said. “For us, it is far more than just an opportunity to avoid buying food shipped over long distances; it is a real chance to highlight the diversity of local flavours, and to make sure they are always fresh and of quality.”
Stepping behind the curtain with camera in hand, I watched chef and co-owner Karina Lapointe skillfully curate complex dishes in a galley kitchen lined with spice-laden mason jars and hunks of fresh produce. Alongside preparing a La Taku crepe with its King Salmon gravlax, locally-made goat cheese, and cranberry-beet chutney, Karina revealed her Quebecois roots in whipping up a roast beef and halloumi cheese (both locally sourced, of course) poutine twist on the revered street food of her own background.
Although crêpes are the cornerstone of Café Balzam’s offerings, Thibault and Katrina enjoy changing things up with seasonal offerings and using the freshest options available from their suppliers.
Settling into one of the cafe’s hand-painted tables (local artisans display their work across the custom table tops, furthering the café’s community-mindedness), I let the rustic Yukon landscape spill through the window. My crêpe of choice, La Biche du Nord, with its artful (and delicious) medley of bean salad, shredded beets and carrots, goat feta, and greens.
My crêpe shared little with the simple egg and veggie combination of Au P’tit Grec. Yet this was not so much street food as it was street cuisine. My earlier backpacker experience became eclipsed by a greater sense of the culinary potential possessed by an otherwise simple crêpe . A world away from the narrow cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter yet, in its unique take on crêpe and highly localized ethos, Café Balzam proved itself more than worth the trip to the edge of town. The only thing left wanting was a delivery service to my home in Toronto.
The writer was a guest of Travel Yukon. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.