Thursday, September 17, 2009

Urban Foraging

When we lived in Sunnyvale a few years ago, we had nearly year-round access to some of the best fresh fruit ever. Sunnyvale and the entire South Bay Area region is now mostly a paved-over, bustling part of Silicon Valley, but it once was part of the nation's most important fruit-producing region. Back then, it was known as the Valley of Heart's Delight. Silicon?

Remnants of that era still exist, mostly in people's yards.

We picked oranges and lemons in the winter; bing cherries in the early summer; peaches, nectarines and plums later in July or August; heirloom tomatoes from the local grade school garden and apples in September; there were even a couple of nearby pomegranate trees. I only took fruit that otherwise would drop and rot -- neglected fruit trees or branches that hung over fences -- since otherwise it just wouldn't be cool.

Some Concord grapes from down the street by our new place are pictured above.

But the real show-stopper of our Sunnyvale cornucopia was a massive and productive avocado tree directly across the street. The day I noticed the tree, shortly after we moved into the apartment, I also saw an old ladder with a sign reading "free." At risk of sounding a little too hippie, I did feel as if the universe wanted me to pick those avocados.

Now I just needed permission, since the ones that fell on the ground tended to get munched on by squirrels. To my surprise, the owner actually offered them to me when he saw me looking closely at the tree.

About once a week, I'd drag my ladder over to the avocado tree and pick about a half of a grocery bag full (any more would have gone bad too quickly). We had guacamole pretty much all the time and put generous slices of the delectable fruit on our sandwiches. Now, avocados don't normally grow that far north, so it was a real treat.

Moving back to the coast and its very different climate and vegetation, I didn't find much stone fruit or oranges -- the few cherry trees in the area were decorative only (the cool of the fog killed any chance of fruiting) -- but I did manage to find several pineapple guava trees. Pineapple guavas are not technically guavas, but they're good.

We didn't have as much of a bounty in the Midwest, but I do remember picking marionberries in the woods bordering our subdivision. I know, not exactly urban (or, to be more precise, suburban), but you never really saw much else in our clay-soil neighborhoods.

Wherever you live, look around and see what's growing. If it's cool -- i.e. you're not ripping off your neighbor -- then sample some truly local produce.

I'll be back next week, as things should settle down a bit by then.


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