Aged premier cru Burgundy was my first life-changing wine. I’d left Alaska by then and knew little of wine, but the first smell from the glass transformed me. For a moment it was like catching a flash of caribou soup. The nose swirled with those same smells: a light earthiness, just a touch of herbs and a hint of sweetness. In the mouth, it was delicate and light while overflowing with rich flavor. With its age, it even carried the same texture as caribou soup.
When I was growing up, caribou soup was made only when the family was all together. It was often our holiday meal, or to honor someone coming back home after a long time away. The soup was meant to welcome everyone and to nourish our time together—a sort of strengthening elixir.
The bones are what make this soup special to Indigenous peoples. Caribou are only found in remote parts of the Arctic. In northern Europe they are known as reindeer. Non-natives hunt the animal as well but more often take only the meat. When faced with the reality of carrying the kill out of a remote area, most non-Natives leave bones behind to lessen the weight. Indigenous people rely on even the bones for food and, later, jewelry. Unlike in cultures that covet specific cuts of meat over others, for an Indigenous person in Alaska, it was the bones that were most prized. They were also hardest to get and to carry.
In caribou soup, only the leg bones are used. The bones of the upper and lower legs are each cut into long segments, the round of the bone and the patik (marrow) inside kept intact. Over hours, the patik cooks down inside the bone, filling the broth with a delicate oil. Meat and a few chopped vegetables are added just before serving. The trick is for the broth to taste like nothing until almost the end of the its cooking. Then, with slices of meat added, the bone-marrow broth erupts into a cascade of flavors.
In coastal Alaska, it’s known as buguk bone soup. We “buguk” the bones when we gnaw them. Native children are taught with the smaller lower leg bones how to chew off every bit of cartilage or meat, then suck out the marrow and its oil as well. Only the elders are given the biggest pieces made by the knob of the knee or the hip joint. Here, the bulbs and canyons of the joint house the greatest morsels—tissues and tendons that must be pulled from the bone with the teeth, and with care.
Caribou soup is a meal of pure flavors. The broth is light in the mouth yet full of rich flavor from the marrow simmered in the bone. Sliced carrots and cabbage bring a hint of sweetness and a palate-cleansing crunch.
The meat is lighter, less gamy than beef, and its lean texture has a bit more structure. In fact, caribou can feel like the purest red meat, a food with transparency to its environment. The flavor is delicate, carrying a hint of earthiness and herbs from its tundra-based diet.
Plants grown on tundra are miniaturized. Labrador tea in summer and tart berries in autumn must be hunted with careful vision as they grow low to the ground in a woven complex of plant life. But their flavors are more concentrated and intense than similar high-bush plants. From last snow melt to first snow fall, caribou rely on this diet of small, intensely flavorful florae.
In my family, holiday meals began with caribou soup, but they finished with tundra berries. Tundra berries (cloudberries paramount among them) carry some of the highest levels of vitamin-C of any edible plant in the world. After first frost, the fruit explodes in the mouth with brilliant acidity. It’s almost impossible to eat the fruit without involuntary mouth puckering. Yet, the brightness of the berries is strange and addictive. My body and mood would feel unsettled if I went too long without them, as if that burst of acidity was part of what kept me regulated.
Caribou soup and life on the tundra prepared me for wine. Leaving Alaska, I was also removed from my Indigenous culture. As much as I love to travel, it’s a culture that’s impossible to translate to anyone—or anywhere—else. But in cool-climate wines I eventually found that burst of bright freshness I experience from tundra berries. Particularly with Burgundy, and from its most transparent producers, a glass of their wine tastes like a quick holiday trip home. A wine shared to welcome and nourish.
Based in Sonoma, Elaine Chukan Brown serves as the American specialist for JancisRobinson.com. Their work also appears in World of Fine Wine, the fourth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine and on their own site, WakawakaWineReviews.com. Prior to writing about wine, Chukan Brown was a philosophy professor specializing in ethics and social politics.
This story appears in the print issue of October 2021.
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