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Urban Foraging: An Excellent (and Totally Legal) Way to Get a Taste of a City

By Matt Jancer

11.19.18

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In most public spaces, wild-grown fruits and berries are there for the picking. 

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In most public spaces, wild-grown fruits and berries are there for the picking. 

Yes, you can—and should—pluck and eat the sugar bananas you find near Sydney’s harbor or the pomegranates in the Jerusalem’s public squares. Here, a guide to city foraging and a few places to try your hand.

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Biting into a luscious, juicy, locally grown piece of fruit is an experience to savor in any city. But you don’t always have to find a farmers’ market to do so. Fruit trees and bushes thrive somewhat miraculously in the cement and tar of the world’s cities, and when they stand in public spaces, it’s often legal to pick yourself a snack. The problem until recently was that you had to know what you were looking for and be lucky enough stumble upon it or be acquainted with a foraging-savvy local who’d show you the way. Now, travelers who discover fruit, nuts, tea, and vegetables in their urban explorations are reporting these foraging locations to online databases, such as Falling Fruit, so that everyone can find them.

“Our goal has always been to focus on cities, specifically,” says Ethan Welty, one of Falling Fruit’s co-founders, “because they are completely human, constructed environments. Almost every one of those trees was put in place because of a human decision. The benefit is that we’re not dealing with ecologically sensitive populations [of plants].” Wild produce in delicate natural areas is left to grow unmolested, and instead people can focus their foraging efforts on more easily accessible urban produce.

A young boy picks Java plums.
Welty’s foraging journey began in 2009 while he was in graduate school at the University of Colorado. He bought an apple press to make cider but he needed apples, and free ingredients beat store-bought ingredients. Friends led him to a section of a local bike path shaded by the branches of apple trees that stretched out over the wall of an apartment complex; because the branches were in a public space, it was legal for Welty to pick the overhanging fruit. “In that moment, there was a switch in my brain,” he says. “As soon as you start looking for something, you see it everywhere.” He began to notice that food could be legally foraged in all kinds of places. Recalling that he’d found those initial apples thanks to word of mouth, he and just a few friends set up Falling Fruit so that people worldwide could share similar information. Now there more than 1.4 million locations mapped on Falling Fruit, comprising 2,683 types of food that can be foraged.

City foraging isn’t an onerous investment of time or effort. It can be something you do as you walk out of an art museum or stroll a city’s green spaces and is as simple as knowing on which side street you’ll find ripe cherries or in which city park black mulberries grow. However, Welty recommends a few etiquette rules to keep in mind if you decide to forage:
  • Take only what you need, or less. Spread out your foraging across multiple plants rather than stripping one down. The idea is not only to leave enough produce for other people, but also enough for the plant to survive and flourish. When you step back from your foraging, the plant should look much like it did when you arrived, not missing a third of its berries.
  • Ask. If you’re unsure or uneasy about grabbing a piece of fruit or handful of nuts, ask the nearest neighbor. “[You need to be] willing to enter into conversations,” says Welty. “You really can’t cover all your bases without [talking].” Even in technically public areas, locals may glare at you for eating bits of their neighborhood. For all you know, they could be tending to the plants personally, even if they don’t own them.
  • Check the law before you forage. What works in one place may be illegal in another. The right to forage “responsibly” for noncommercial purposes is encoded in Scottish law, for example, but next door in England it could get you into trouble.

There’s no particular characteristic that makes one city better or worse for foraging, says Welty. You just have to take the plunge, travel there, and search around. Here, a few large, well-developed cities with enticing culturally or historically significant eats that you can forage thanks to an abundance of user-uploaded foraging locations.

Uppsala, Sweden

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Lingonberries are a staple crop in all the northern European countries and are used in savory and sweet dishes alike. Tart when eaten alone, lingonberries are more often turned into sugar-loaded preserves and spread on toast or crepes or boiled down into sauces and slathered over meat dishes. You’ll have to travel beyond Uppsala’s downtown to find wild lingonberries, but that’s fitting in a country where citizens pride themselves on their strong connection to nature and penchant for periodic escapes from the city. Your search will bring you to the primeval landscape of Fibysjön Lake. If you’re dead-set on eating lingonberries raw, as a few people like, go forage some sugar first to scatter over them.

Sydney, Australia

Sugar bananas (which, outside of Australia, are often called Lady Finger bananas) are plump, chubby little things and are smaller and sweeter than the full-size Cavendish type you see at most grocery stores around the world. While the Cavendish are popular in Australia too, the native sugar bananas are just as easy to find on shelves. But pick yourself a fresh one near the waterfront of northern Sydney, where you can walk a block away to snack on your native-Australian treat as you look upon famous Sydney Harbor.

Bitter orange trees line the streets of Athens.
Athens, Greece

Seville oranges, also known as bitter oranges or sour oranges, grow along city streets throughout southern Europe, where the climate is friendly to citrus. But Athens takes the prize for the sheer number of them. Long swaths of these orange trees grow as ornamentation in public spaces, and their fragrance fills the city air. Though they look like ordinary oranges, bitter oranges are, well, bitter, so you won’t want to rip one down from a limb and chomp into it; they’re the best type of orange to take home and turn into marmalade.

Manila, Philippines

The national fruit of the Philippines, mangoes grow all over the capital city. The variety you want to seek out here is the Carabao, also called the Philippine mango or the Manila mango. Rather than the red-skinned mangoes you’re likely to see at most grocery stores in the United States, the Manila mango is a vibrant yellow when ripe. It’s the sweetest type of mango, and people who profess a favorite usually name the Carabao.

Paris, France

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Mirabelle plums grow wild in yards and hang over sidewalks all across Europe, but no one weaves them into their cultural identity—or their brandy, cakes, pies, and preserves—like the French. France holds an annual Mirabelle plum festival every year that attracts 80,000 visitors, and Lorraine’s tourism board brags about the number of local tour operators that appear with every growing season. Tiny, deep red, or dark yellow, the Mirabelle is very sweet, and its taste is often described as exotic or honey-like. Eat ’em along the residential streets where you find them in Paris, because they’re hard to find outside Europe and almost impossible to find in the United States.

New Delhi, India

Native to the Indian subcontinent, the little oblong Java plums that grow on jabul trees (also called jamun trees) have a sharp, astringent flavor. Some people sprinkle them with salt to cut the acidity, but they’re also widely enjoyed without it. They’re so beloved, they’re almost the state symbol. You won’t have to go far in New Delhi to find a Java plum tree; they pockmark the old city’s center. Avoid the lime-green plums, which are unripe. As they ripen, Java plums shift through various shades of red, from the light red of a McIntosh apple to the ruby of a Red Delicious. Finally, when they are as dark red as a black cherry, they’re ready for plucking and eating.

Jerusalem, Israel

From Greece to China, and especially in the Middle East, ancient civilizations wrote about pomegranates. The Jews called them gateways to God, the Babylonians associated them with immortality, and the Chinese believed they improved fertility. For those who haven’t had one, a pomegranate is filled with lots of edible seeds, each of which is surrounded by a translucent red juice sac. It’s the perfect thing to quench your thirst in a hot desert country. In Jerusalem, head to the old, well-preserved neighborhoods of Katamon and Musrara to pluck one down just as an ancient traveler may have done, and give it a good whack on something hard, like a fence, to split it open. A single pomegranate is enough to last you a while, so just take the one.

>>Next: Foraging, Fishing, and Feasting on Vancouver Island

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