Flash in the Pan 

Gleaning season

There’s a neighborhood being built in the Rattlesnake where an apple orchard used to be. Amid the freshly poured sidewalks and half-built homes with “For Sale” signs already posted, gnarled apple trees face an uncertain future amid fields of cheat grass gone to seed. The apples hanging off those trees are incredible.

With the growing season approaching its zenith, this is a time of plenty, and savvy foodies are taking note of surplus opportunities like this.

There are many ways to tap into the surplus, even if you don’t feel like calling the realtor on the “For Sale” sign and asking to pick from the waning orchard. You can also pay money for food, and now is the time to score deals on quality produce. If you do a good job in preserving it, investing some cash right now will pay you back big-time all winter.

Going after those abandoned apples would fall into the category of gleaning, a term whose more common definition reads, “to gather information or other material bit by bit.” If you substitute “unwanted food” for “other material,” you arrive at the sense that I’m writing about today, which Webster’s describes as: “to gather grain or other produce left behind by the reaper.”

In the case of fruit trees around town, sometimes the reaper never even shows up.

Last week, my kitchen was an apricot processing plant. We had four dehydrators going, each full of pitted orange nuggets of bliss. On the patio, folding tables held sheets of apricot leather sun-drying on waxed paper. On the stove, apricot chutney simmered a sweet and spicy combination of flavors that is going to taste very good on the harvests of the coming hunting season. In another pot, apricots simmered with the pie cherries we picked and froze in July. The fate of this apricot/cherry syrup was up in the air. I wanted to cook it down to butter. She wanted leather. She always wants leather.

Like the pie cherries, all these apricots came from trees around town, none of which are my own. It’s a strange but true fact that modern Americans like the idea of fruit trees more than the work involved in actually dealing with the fruit. My neighbor cut down two delicious apple trees in her back yard because they “made a big mess.” Jeez, lady…

I’ve got an apple peeler/corer (available at most hardware stores) that turns an apple into a slinky, which I pull apart into thin rings and put in the dehydrator. It isn’t possible to have too many of these. In the coming months, my dehydrators will be going around the clock with full loads of apple rings.

Apples are just the beginning of what’s possible in the dehydrator. Thinly sliced zucchini, for example, dipped in olive oil and sprinkled with salt, will dehydrate down to awesome lightweight camping food. The same goes for sliced tomatoes, tomatillos, carrots, onions and garlic—even sliced leafy greens like kale or collards. This stuff tastes so good it may never even make it camping. There are many good books out there with information on how to dehydrate, freeze, can or otherwise store the bounty.

The number-one rule of gleaning is that you ask the owner’s permission, even if the tree is dropping fruit shamelessly. If nobody answers the door, the best you can do is leave a polite note and hope they call you. If you really want to get on the owner’s good side, offer to clean up the fruit that has already fallen—even if it’s too rotten to use.

Many fruit gleaners have a mental map of where their favorite fruit trees grow. They guard this information carefully, keeping tabs on the maturing fruit and picking when it’s ripe. If you have information of your own, you might be able to trade.

By the time you read this, the apricots will be on the wane, but the plums will be coming on strong, followed by the apples, which are by far the biggest crop. They are such a big crop, in fact, that they attract bears to some Missoula neighborhoods, especially the Rattlesnake.

“At any given time there are between five and 20 bears in Missoula,” says Dr. Chuck Jonkel, of Missoula’s Great Bear Foundation. “People blame the bears, but we’re the ones who moved into their habitat, planted fruit trees and let the fruit drop.” Jonkel and Jenny Rasche form the core of the Great Bear Foundation’s “Bears and Apples” program, which offers to clean out the fruit trees of homeowners not inclined to harvest their own fruit. The apples, plums and apricots they harvest get sent to the Missoula Food Bank.

“It’s nice,” says Jonkel. “You get a hunter/gatherer feeling about it. It’s good for the food bank, good for the homeowners and good for the bears. It’s a win-win-win.”

Homeowners interested in getting their trees cleaned, and gleaners who want to get their hands on some fruit, can call the Great Bear Foundation at 829-9378.


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