Sunday, July 25, 2010

Local, fresh, delicious... need I say more?

I think we need a new word to describe produce so local that it doesn't even travel one city block from harvest to kitchen. The equivalent of local-squared, only way more catchy!

Yup, that's a garden bed chock full of basil, a number of varieties of it, actually - that's purple basil up in front, looking and smelling so good that I had to restrain myself from tasting a few leaves. Which is saying a lot, considering I was completely stuffed after enjoying a lovely afternoon tea some twelve floors beneath this garden, in the Library Bar on the lobby level of the Royal York Hotel. Look a bit more closely at the picture and you'll soon notice that my friends and I were standing on the hotel's lower rooftop, right downtown, only a stone's throw away from other skyscrapers and condos. After the tea service, we were treated to a tour (guided by an apprentice chef, no less) of the hotel's herb garden and were pleasantly surprised to find more than just herbs:

Bees are easily one of my favourite insects (but I have to admit it's not hard to top that list when I have a fear-bordering-on-phobia of spiders and centipedes) due to their multi-tasking role in pollinating our crops and allowing us to repeatedly steal their honey. Also, they're cute and have never stung me. Bonus! So, upon seeing this collection of beehives, I was certainly delighted, then impressed when our guide explained that these bees not only help fertilize the plants in the herb garden, they are also known to fly as far as the Toronto Islands (3km away) to collect nectar from the wildflowers that grow there. Now that's a strong work ethic...

But wait, there's more:

It's hard to describe what heirloom varieties of tomatoes taste like compared to the random, no-name tomatoes you typically find in a grocery store. Basically... more tomato-y. These are the ones I often can't even be bothered to cut into a salad, because I'd rather just eat them whole, no dressing or salt required. The ones pictured here are pear tomatoes, which is fairly obvious from their shape. They had some other heirloom varieties that I didn't immortalize with my camera because they weren't ripe yet, but I'm guessing with more sun and heat in the forecast, it won't be long before they are served to some very lucky hotel guests. Jealous!

There were lots of other goodies on the roof, including way more herbs than I could identify, squash, edible flowers, and grapes:

Just before leaving, I was pleasantly surprised to find so much mint that just walking past it freshened my breath:

They're even cultivating a chocolate mint variety that, just as the name claims, tastes like chocolate! If you stop to think about that, it makes no sense. Mint that tastes like cocoa would be unlikely but somehow more naturally-occurring than mint that tastes like a human creation. But I'm not complaining!

The existence of this garden, and the knowledge that others like it are popping up all over the place, makes me very hopeful for the future. Although it may be unfeasible to grow enough produce on rooftops to feed an entire city, this is a start, and even if we can't all eat the meals created with this urban harvest, everybody benefits from green spaces on top of buildings: green roofs absorb heat and filter the air, reducing both smog and the urban heat island effect.

So let's hear it for downtown rooftop gardening! I raise a toast with my cup of tea.

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