Using wild, local, sustainable ingredients for fresh spring cocktails

As winter’s icy grip slowly loosens and the sun pulls the first flowers from softened soil, the earth around us returns to a lush green landscape. Living in a coastal climate, we are conditioned by our seasons, and our palates crave the fresh offerings of the newly turned earth. Here in Halifax, we have the oldest continuous operating farmers market in North America so fresh, seasonal food is something we are accustomed to. However, ingredients for cocktails can often seem exotic or foreign, but to truly embrace spring and drink with the season perhaps we have to look no further than at our feet.

Think for a moment about a world without the luxury of refrigeration or the convenience of a grocery store. Those native to Nova Scotia and our early pioneers had only the resources of the natural world to sustain their communities—a bounty of wild edible plants, fresh berries, seasonal vegetables, and more from both land and sea. Of course, we have access to all this today, but with more regulation and for some (myself included) a lack of familiarity with the gifts our land provides. Foraging for wild ingredients can be a dangerous game. Lucky for us in Halifax, there are experienced foragers scouring the forest floors and rugged coastlines to bring us natural and sustainable ingredients for both food and drink.

Foraging is tough and sometimes unpredictable. There are dozens and dozens of wild edibles in Nova Scotia, some best consumed raw, others that need to be cooked. Some are easy to identify, and others have poisonous doppelgangers. However, unlike our earliest settlers, we have informative resources at hand to help guide us. There are many books, apps, and guidelines available on the topic of wild food and foraging in Nova Scotia, dealing with both the regulations and legalities and the safety concerns that come with wild expeditions. But for me, foraging is easy. I just call Fred Dardenne. 

Dardenne runs his own foraging business, FD Wild Foods and Fine Products. He scours every corner of coastline in Nova Scotia to supply more than fifty restaurants and bars in Halifax alone. Aside from the knowledge gained from a life working with the land and sea, Dardenne even has special permission from the Department of Natural Resources to forage on crown land, allowing him access to some of this provinces finest culinary treasures and treats. He also offers educational foraging tours—so you too can learn first hand the treasures of our land. Dardenne’s knowledge is extensive, and he harvests over 200 different products, which he ships globally. For those of us lucky enough in Halifax, he delivers his jewels of the earth right to our door.

Dardenne’s offerings change week to week as new products become available or as hyper-seasonal products disappear. His weekly product list reads like ingredients from a Michelin star restaurant on the moon except they were sourced a day trip away from the heart of the city.  Never have the seemingly exotic and foreign been more local: Sea rocket, sea lettuce, dried catkin, sea truffle, oyster leaf, sugar kelp, cedar twigs, morel mushrooms, wild rosehip, elderberries, caribou moss, fresh periwinkles, and that barely even scratches the surface of his wild sourcing. His hard work and knowledge put the ingredients in our hands—then it’s our turn to get to work.

Inspired by spring and thirsty for a cocktail I recently met up with Dardenne to source ingredients. He brought sweet fern and balsam fir powder, spruce needles, and a rare type of cranberry that grows along the coast. With these, I made syrups, infusions, teas, and shrubs. Using the ingredients in different applications allowed me to understand how the flavours of the raw ingredients would best be used. During the lighter months, I tend to drink lighter spirits, and when making cocktails,
I use fresh, lively ingredients. A classic gin martini with spruce highlights the earthy notes in the gin and adds depth to a two-ingredient cocktail. A Tom Collins with balsam fir syrup or a Mojito with sweet fern is a simple, unique twist on a classic drink using locally sourced and sustainable ingredients. Our natural world is our greatest resource and celebrating our local wild flavours with food and drink highlights our direct relationship. And if scouring the forest floor or harvesting ocean plants is too much trouble, Fred Dardenne is just a phone call away.