Helena Martin is co-founder of the new foraging website, RipeNearMe. Born in Singapore, she has lived in Malaysia, Sydney, and now Adelaide, South Australia. She does her best to forage wherever she goes.
My love affair with fruit goes back a long way. Our property had many fruit trees and I climbed almost all of them in spite of insect bites and other hazards. As kids, we were the best neighbourhood foragers although our fearlessness often landed us in trouble.
Neighbours were receptive to us kids, although I have now knocked on many doors and offered to pay for fruit and have been told to help myself. People tell me they would rather see the food eaten than rot on the ground as they don't know what to do with the surplus.
Our modus operandi was, and still is, to scour the neighbourhood for anything edible and keep a record of what’s around. (I no longer climb fences so I can't always see what is grown in the back, although I do ask). We had been warned about what fruit was edible and, if in doubt, to leave well alone. We sussed out the friendly neighbours and gave the unfriendly ones a wide berth.
Nowadays I drive and can go further but my MO remains the same. In the 10 km radius of where I live I can source 80% of my favourite fruit, mostly for free, for a token sum, or in exchange for my own homegrown produce. There are also fruit trees in community gardens and public areas. Today we feasted on sweet public mulberries, picked off the trees and straight into our mouths. Life doesn't get better than this.
Eveyone can get in on the foraging action
What to Bring
On serious foraging days, foragers should be ready with bags, trolleys with wheels if required, an extendable fruit picker or ladder and good shoes if fruit is high up. Of course since I find my fruit on RipeNearMe, I have contacted the growers and arranged for either swapping or purchase. In the heat of summer it can be thirsty work so I always have water in my car.
Trying not to eat the fruit as I pick is my greatest challenge as I think of the goodness coursing through my body from such freshness. It is not unusual for me to feel sick from consuming too much, but the taste is too good to bear and so the fruit finds its own path to my stomach. This is called lack of self-control and is pervasive amongst foragers, so don't feel bad about being a glutton. It is not only acceptable but encouraged amongst foragers and we all have tales to tell of when we went too far and paid the price - not funny at the time, but hilarious later.
Delicious foods can be had when you take the time to find them
Where to Find Food
So, where does the serious urban fruit forager go in the modern world? Fortunately today we have a plethora of options available to make sharing fresh produce easy, safe and fun.
Wild Foods: Foraging, of course, starts with wild foods. There's something inherently exotic about "wild" food. It's an adventure, with a dash of risk if you don't know what you're doing. With the right knowledge you can forge a track into a local forest, park or roadside verge and emerge with a bounty that makes your tummy sing - or grumble, at least. The trick is to do some research to make sure the land is safe (i.e. not been sprayed with herbicides or used for industrial purposes).
Learn From the Experts: Steve Brill's foraging tours of Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Swallow Tail Tours by Robin Kort, or ForageSF in San Francisco are ways one can get an introduction to foraging. In the UK, Abundance London as well as Food Safaries by Nick Saltmarsh and foraging courses by Robin Harford offer valuable insights. In Australia, naturalist Diego Bonetto and Doris Pozzi of Edible Weeds fame have been on the foraging scene for years talking sustainability to anyone who will listen.
Grow Your Own: Growing your own is the next evolutionary step in food gathering, just like our ancestors who moved from the forests to cultivated plains. If you've got a bit of sunlight, water and a place for soil, you've got room to grow food! There's enough how-to-grow information on the web to sink a ship, so we won't cover that here. What we will say is "get started!" It's easier than you think.
Share Land: If you don't have room to grow your own food, then you still have a few options. First, you could try to grow food on someone else's land. Sites like Sharing Backyards and Landshare allow you to find landowners with spare space willing to let happy gardeners grow a pear or two, and vice versa.
Beyond that, community gardens are becoming widespread in cities across the world. At the time of writing we're not aware of any resources mapping community gardens across the world, so check with your local council or jurisdiction. After all, what a great way to forage: rubbing shoulders with like-minded, albeit sweaty, friends.
Bring a fruit picker...or someone with a long reach
Share the Bounty
Now that you're growing food of your own to forage, what do you do with the excess? A common, global solution is local food swaps. Sites like the Food Swap Network help you find local groups and events to swap and share. The next best thing to picking fruit off the tree is picking fruit from the person who just picked the fruit off the tree.
Sharing backyard food makes an immense amount of sense. Growing your own food is always the most satisfying experience, but there is a limit to how much - and how much variety - you can grow. Leveraging your community and the space in your town we can all share in an immense bounty. In our town of Adelaide, South Australia, it's been estimated that the value of backyard fruit trees is well in excess of $1.5 million dollars per year. Imagine if we could double the amount of trees, all while ensuring none of it goes to waste.
The Ultimate Experience
If you want the ultimate foraging experience, you really need a way to get into peoples’ yards (With permission of course - we're grown up now!). RipeNearMe provides that experience. You can begin your foraging online, and easily see what others are growing in your neighbourhood. Then it's just a matter of getting in touch with the grower to pick, buy or swap.
RipeNearMe also has the benefit of mapping wild or publicly-grown foods, so it can help you find and share what's freely available. Of course, common sense should prevail, and it's wise to ensure that you never take too much - either to the detriment of others missing out or the plant itself.
In Australia, plants grown in national parks and gardens, nature reserves, wetlands and state forests are protected and you can incur fines if you harvest without permission. In the wild there are creatures that may depend on this food for survival and we must always consider them first or risk disrupting the natural order of that environment.
When foraging, you sometimes have to get off the beaten path
Addicted to Foraging
For those of you embarking on fruit foraging let me warn you of its addiction, because once you taste fruit fresh off the tree you will be forever resentful of the tasteless imitators on supermarket shelves.
Like everything else, eating real fruit becomes a habit and foraging becomes exciting because sometimes you come upon heirloom varieties that look strange but taste heavenly. Sometimes the grower may even give you seeds or a graft in exchange for sharing produce.
There are nice surprises in foraging, not least of which is meeting neighbours and community and sharing information and news about life at large. What starts out as a search for fresh fruit becomes an adventure and when we forage for fruit what we find is a whole lot more.
Why not venture out now? Share your funny stories with us. You know you want to...