Tips For A Neighborhood Fruit and Nut Harvester

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For an urban fruit harvester or forager, neighborhood fruit trees are a plentiful, and often untapped, source of food.

Written for city dwellers by city dwellers, The Urban Homestead (Process Media, 2010) is an illustrated instruction guidebook for the homesteading movement. Kelly Croyne and Erik Knutzen show how to grow and preserve your own food, clean your house without resorting to toxins, and raise animals in your own backyard. This excerpt from “Urban Foraging” implores the reader to lose the guilt over foraging for neighborhood fruits and nuts. The following is an essential read for the urban fruit harvester.

One day the branch of a fruit tree is covered with pretty blossoms, and then the next time you look at it, the branch is groaning under the weight of more fruit than you can eat or give away. And as with all homegrown food, this fruit is of better quality than anything you can find in the supermarket: plums running over with juice, crisp apples full of subtle flavors, honeyed apricots that have nothing to do with mealy things offered in stores — fruit that would be pesticide soaked if you bought it in the supermarket, or expensive coming from the organic stall at the farmers’ market. Despite this fact, a lot of neighborhood fruit goes unpicked, and ends up rotting at the base of the tree.

Why? Anyone who has tried to grow their own food knows there is nothing inconvenient about a plant that needs little care and yet produces bushels of food without prompting each year. Every home should have at least one. If you know some basic preservation techniques, dealing with that bounty does not need to be daunting. All it takes is a day or two to harvest the tree and preserve the fruit — whether that be by drying, canning, fermenting, making jam or even making cider.

It goes against homestead principles to let food go to waste — whether it be on your land, or someone else’s. A homesteader keeps their eye open for food-gathering opportunities at home and abroad, because any food you find is food you do not have to grow, and this includes other people’s trees. The law states that any fruit growing in a parkway strip, or on branches hanging over a sidewalk or alley is in public space and therefore fair game for you to pick. Of course it is better to ask permission when you can, and of course we don’t need to tell you not to break branches, climb on fences, or otherwise behave like a hooligan when you are picking fruit.

If you spot an overloaded tree in someone’s yard on your wanderings, and if your surreptitious sampling proves it to be tasty, inquire with the owner and see if they’ll let you harvest the whole thing. Odds are they will be grateful to you if you would relieve them of this burden, and will just tell you to take what you want.

As far as we are concerned, there cannot be too many fruit trees in any neighborhood. Unfortunately they are not as common as they should be, perhaps for the aforementioned “messy” reason, or because a couple of generations of bad supermarket fruit has made us suspicious of fruit eating on the whole. With any luck this will change as a new wave of homesteaders, community activists, permaculturists and forward-thinking landscapers begin to transform the urban landscape with food-bearing trees.

Tools For The Fruit Harvester

Properly managed fruit trees are pruned so that their branches do not grow out of easy reach. But the truth is very few trees are managed so well, so when you go foraging (or when you face up to that tree in your own backyard) you are confronted with clusters of tempting fruit dangling just out of reach. A ladder is not convenient to carry around when you are foraging, and even in your own backyard it can be a little perilous swaying around on the top rung trying to reach every last fruit. Far better to stay on solid ground and use a couple of clever tools to bring the fruit to you.

Fruit Picker
This is basically a long hand on a pole that you can stick up into the tree. The business end is a wire cage with claws at the opening. It looks like the skeleton of a catcher’s mitt, or maybe like a particularly aggressive light bulb cage. The claws dislodge the fruit and the basket catches it. Fruit pickers are easy to find in garden centers, and you can get one for under 20 dollars.

This is a more obscure tool, one used for wrestling fruit out of monster bushes or trees with soft, bending branches. We know of it from Samuel Thayer’s Forager’s Harvest. It is simply a stick with a hook on one end and a rope on the other end. Using the hook, you catch a flexible branch and draw it down gently to your level. So you can have your hands free to pick the fruit, you stand on the tail of the rope. You could make one of these easily out of just about anything: wood, bamboo, wire, metal. For instance, you could bend an old ski pole sharply at the tip, and then tie a rope to the handle. Or you could screw a big hook onto a broomstick — then it would be very much like a dive hook you use in dumpster diving. In fact, you might be able to use the same pole for both purposes.

For efficiency and safety you want both of your hands free as you work, and you don’t want to be running back and forth to a stationary container. So you need to either use a shoulder bag — an old messenger bag would work well — or tie a light tub or basket around your waist. A smallish tub is the ideal collection device for berry picking.

How To Eat Acorns

Why should the squirrels have all the fun?
To our way of thinking, acorns fall between wild food gathering and neighborhood fruit foraging. Unlike most fruit trees, acorns grow in the wilderness, and the semi-wilderness, but you are also going to find plenty of them in the city. They are so ubiquitous, so easy to identify, and so bountiful come fall, that we thought we had to give them their own section.

Acorns have a bad reputation as being inedible, or fit only for animal fodder. This is not so. Acorns were among the primary staples of the Native American tribes. They are an excellent survival food, being rich in calories, complex carbohydrates, good fats, and a fair amount of protein. All you have to do make acorns edible is process them to remove the tannin, which makes them very bitter. Actually, ingesting too much tannin can cause kidney failure, but tannins are so darn bitter you’d be hard pressed to eat enough to kill you. Acorns are not a nut to be eaten out of hand, but they can be made into a nutritious mush or flour.

All varieties of acorns are edible, but some are better than others. It cannot hurt to try any acorns that you can find growing near you, but in general acorns from white oaks, which are the kind with rounded leaves, are preferable to red oaks, the kind with pointy-tipped, many-lobed leaves, because white oak acorns are larger and sweeter. If you are presented with the choice of a few different kinds of oak trees, open up a few nuts. You’re looking for big nuts with plump, pale meat showing no sign of bugs. Taste the raw acorns — a little nibble won’t kill you. All will be bitter, but choose the tree that produces the least bitter nuts.

Preparing Acorn Mash And Flour
Harvest the nuts in September. If they’ve been on the ground, they may have bugs in them. Look for tiny boreholes in the shell and discard those. When you bring your acorns home, put them in a bucket of water and discard any that float.

You can let your acorns sit out in the hot sun a few days to dry, and then you can store them out of the way of rodents until you need them. Or you can process them right away.

Acorns have soft shells. Rather then cracking them, you pop off their little hats and then peel them. A pair of pliers helps. As you work, discard any that look dark or dusty inside. The next step is to grind them up. Unless Armageddon is upon us and you have to use two rocks, the easiest way to do this is in a blender. Fill it with whole acorns then add water. Buzz it to form a creamy mash.

This mash needs to be leached to rinse away the bitter tannins. The original method for doing this would be to put the mash in a running stream. Instead, you are going to line a colander with an old dishtowel or a piece of cheesecloth, pour the mash in and let the excess liquid drain away. Tie up the corners of the cloth, and transfer the bundle of mash to a big bowl of water. Let it sit a while until the water goes cloudy/dark, then dump that water and refill the bowl. Put the mash through several changes of water over the course of the day. How many changes depends upon how much tannin was in your acorns.

It is okay to let the mash sit in a bowl of water overnight, and then continue the changing in the morning. Some sources will tell you to put the mash through several changes of boiling water. This is not necessary, and it may lessen the nutrient qualities of the mash, so don’t bother.

The mash is done when the water in the bowl no longer goes cloudy, and when the bitter taste is gone. Tannin has a particular mouthfeel that is quite recognizable — it sort of puckers the tongue. When it tastes clear, squeeze all the excess water from the bundle with your hands. It’s ready to use.

After processing, the mash can be used right away, frozen for future use, or you can spread it on cookie sheets and dry it in a low oven or dehydrator until it resembles corn meal. Once it is dry, you can whirl it in a food processor for a finer texture.

Acorn meal/flour does not keep as well as normal flour, so keep it in the fridge and use it fairly soon. Try substituting or blending with corn meal in any corn bread/corn muffin recipe. Toss a little acorn flour into any baked good — cookies, bread, pancakes — to improve the nutritional profile of whatever you are baking.

Using The Acorn Mash
Acorn mash can be cooked up with water like you would oatmeal. Just add a little more water to your freshly strained mash and simmer it over low heat until it is at a consistency you like. This is a traditional Native American way of eating acorns. The porridge will be on the bland side, and will need to be tricked up either into the sweet realm with fruit and sugar, or the savory realm with salt and butter. Or perhaps toss in parmesan cheese to make a wild polenta. Another traditional use is to stir the mash into meat stews at the very end of cooking to thicken them.

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Reprinted with permission from The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen and published Process Media, 2010.