It’s 4 in the morning and there is a knock on my bedroom door. I barely open my eyes as my father’s booming voice declares in Polish: ‘Get up, get dressed, we are going picking!’ While other children are still nestled in their beds dreaming of Saturday morning cartoons, my older brother and I reluctantly met in the hallway. We dressed in our knee high boots and multiple layers for a morning of mushroom and berry foraging. Our mother with a scarf on her head and a bag full of food, huddles us into the faithful family ford LTD wagon and off we go. We arrive at the foraging location, not too far away from our family’s humble, Canadian beginnings in Pine falls, Manitoba. The exact location is hush-hush, held more sacred then any government secret. We are handed basic tools, 2 white buckets and our very own trusty folding knife. Our father’s instructions are simple: ‘berries in one bucket, mushrooms in the other, stick close, pick in a pattern, and yell your name every 5 mins so I know where you are.’ Little did we know at the time, forest forging started a journey, teaching us that basic ingredients make flavour combinations worthy of celebration. Our father would sit with us sifting through all the small treasures, separating and sorting the good from the bad. The savoury bucket full of mushrooms would be used for soups, broths, and other delicious dishes. But it was the berries that were the real gold for us. We would enjoy them on hot summer days, spooned on ice cream, pressed into Kompot drinks, and pureed in sauces to top our crepes. For the adult’s, it was the vodka and spirit infusions that made for great parties. I think that’s where we saw it first, the love people had for my father’s ‘Nalewki” –flavoured infusions. Days before birthdays, or Christmases, he would be in the basement cold room mixing his foraged ingredients with different spirits for our family. He would make several varieties. Some guests liked a great gin, and others a flavourful rye. But most where there to try the ‘Mietek” special - his take on a sweet grass vodka legend called Zubrowka. I still remember my uncle shouting over the family noise, ‘eh Mietek, another special please!’ Pouring his infusion into the finest crystal glass, my father would ice it, then top it with homemade soda water. This is where our family legend was born. From the Baltic Brothers’ family table to yours, may these “Nalewki” bring as much joy to your special guests as they have to ours. Please enjoy, and as we say in Polish, cheers to your health – “Na zdrowie!”
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