Foraging in Toronto with The Botanist Gin

On a chilly and a little rainy morning in October we stood outside waiting to get on a bus to head out to the unknown. Reed Pettit of The Botanist Gin had invited us to come bright (if the sun had been out) and early for an adventure and I was pretty excited. Most of the people present had worked a shift the night before and were operating on minimal hours of sleep. But nonetheless, there we were, ready to learn. We hopped on the bus, picked up our forager – the leader for the day and we were off to the great wilderness of…. High Park.

For those of you unfamiliar with Toronto, High Park is the biggest park in Toronto. It’s full of gardens and trees and trails to get lost in. It’s big but it’s not huge. It’s nature but it’s also pretty urban. When I think of foraging, I imagine driving hours away from the city and heading to the real boons. That is when I realised how much there is to forage right here, in our backyards. While the things available may not be as lush and plentiful as what you would find in a tropical climate, nonetheless, things grow here that we can collect and eat and use in our food and cocktails. Our forager emphasized that October may not be the most luscious time of year to forage in Ontario but regardless, we went on out there and collected some great things.

Now a disclaimer: Now I know that you are likely an intelligent person but… before going all Into the Wild I do have to say that when you set out to forage, do so with caution. This may not be obvious to everyone but: you cannot eat everything that grows. Some of it will make you sick. Very sick. Before popping anything into your mouth or serving it to a customer, know what you are working with.

We walked around for hours picking, digging and learning about all kinds of things that grow basically everywhere in Toronto. Some surprises for me on this day: goldenrod – that beautiful yellow flower that people often blame for their allergies (not true!) is edible. The flowers, the leaves – all of it. Another common flower, Queen Anne’s Lace also goes by the name Wild Carrot, and guess what? You can eat its root. Green balls that you see on the ground this time of year, which my sisters and I used to refer to as “stink bombs” are actually Black Walnuts. Gingko fruit, if you are lucky enough to find some, smells like the stinkiest of cheese and apparently roasting the nuts is divine. Those little clover-like plants with yellow flowers are actually Wood Sorrel. The leaves have a tangy, citrus flavour. A plant called Garlic Mustard tastes and smells exactly as its name. So many discoveries!

We went home that day with a bag of goodies to play with. I immediately started digging up our backyard as I realised that those pesky plants growing there are actually Burdock. I dug up the roots and roasted them. Verdict: not bad! While I getting dirty, Josh was in the kitchen concocting a cocktail with our finds. I guess the point of all of this is that you don’t have to live in Costa Rica in order to forage something from your own backyard and make something great with it. There’s ingredients to be found everywhere – you just have to go out looking for them. Below is the cocktail that Josh created that day, aptly called the Grenadier Pond Smash as a homage to High Park.

Grenadier Pond Smash
1.5oz The Botanist Gin
0.5oz Cocchi Americano
0.5oz Honey Syrup
8-10 Crabapples (the little ones that are about the size of a cherry)
I dash of Orange Flower Water

Muddle the crabapples in the bottom of a shaker tin. Add the liquid ingredients and then fill with ice. Shake the hell out of it and double strain into an ice filled old fashioned glass.

Jessica Blaine Smith
Co-creator at Bartender Atlas
Jess co-created Bartender Atlas with her bartender husband Josh Lindley. She has worked as a full-time freelance photographer for the past two decades. Her photography focuses on lifestyle portraits, food & drink photography and corporate portraits and events She recently photographed Evelyn Chick's For the Love of Cocktails book. While not a bartender herself, she definitely loves a strong stirred cocktail, preferably one that is brown and/or smokey. Jess is a proud ambassador of her home city of Toronto.
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