A beginners guide to urban foraging

I’ve been introduced to urban foraging recently through a friend and it’s amazing how much sustainable food is at an easy reach. We’re talking about free, ultra-local, seasonal, fresh food that implies a carbon-free fun light exercise activity. And it’s also a food saving activity because lots of the food that overhang fences in back alleys just falls on the ground to rot.

Look bellow at how much I found on two different foraging trips!

Before we start, I want to recommend you to follow my friend Mathilde’s Instagram page. She’s the expert who gave me all of these juicy tips for successful foraging. Her Instagram keeps you posted about when to pick certain products, all about identifying fruit and veg and fun facts (like did you know the passion fruit tree leaves are edible?).

Now, let’s get started!

Safety first

This guide contains tips for foraging all around the world, but note some info is Australia specific. Check laws, pesticide use, and other specifics for your country before foraging.

LEGAL & SOCIAL ASPECT – If you’re hesitant to forage on a legal point of view, know it is legal to pick everything that grows past people’s fence in Australia. And on a social aspect, coming from Mathilde’s experience who forages all the time – people are happy to share! If you see someone in their garden or coming out of their house, ask and you will probably often get a “please help yourself” from them.

PESTICIDES – Keep in mind most Melbourne councils are allowed to spray streets, parks, and alleys with pesticides. I avoid everything that grows on the ground.

OTHER CONTAMINATION – Do not pick damaged fruit and veg as they might have been nibbled on by pests. If they’re discolored, however, it’s usually fine – either sunburnt or struggling fruit. Fruit and veg growing on or near the flower might be peed on by dogs as well. Wash your harvest to avoid feces from bats or rodents.

WASH THE PRODUCE – To be safe, always wash what you’ve harvested. However, do not wash it straight away as most fruit and veg gets bad quickly if you wash them in advance due to the moisture and the fact many of them have a natural protective coat.

DO NOT PICK FOOD YOU CAN’T IDENTIFY – I’ve provided a guide below to identifying common fruit and their fruit trees. However, if you’re in doubt, don’t pick it.

What you need

WATER BOTTLE – Fruit like figs can be really sticky so after a long foraging sesh your hands will be icky. You might also want to wash and eat some straight away!

BAGS OR CONTAINERS – Bring repurposed/reusable plastic bags to keep juicy fruit from juicing all over the shop. Smaller bags or containers can also come in handy to not squash olives and mini clementines.

A PREPPED ROUTE – To avoid walking and never finding any spots, prepare your route. See below how you can easily create a great route.

SCISSORS OR SECATEURS – They’re not a must, but they might come in handy (especially if you’re making a flower bouquet on the way).

BIKE – Bikes are not a must (I don’t), but can drastically improve your harvest as good trees tend to spread around and walking will slow you down.

FOLDABLE STEP STOOL – For the level 10 dedicated forager, I would recommend a foldable step stool to reach those “so close, yet so far”-fruits.

If not, jump!

Where to forage

BACK ALLEYS – Back alleys are 100% the best because they’re less frequented than main streets and people don’t bother pruning trees that overhang there. The best way to find back alleys is to use Google maps and look for streets with no name. Use street view to see clearly if they’re alleys or not.

EUROPEAN NEIGHBOURHOODS – Although this hasn’t been statistically proven, Mathilde has noticed a higher abundance of fruit trees in neighborhoods with high Italian or Greek population.

SAVE GOOD LOCATIONS – For next time (because you will want to do this again), make a system to remember good streets or trees with nearly ripe fruit. Mathilde recommended two great options. Either save a pin on Google maps and even add all the pins to a list if you can be bothered. The second easier option is to take pictures with your phone since most phones nowadays save the location of where the picture was taken. While you’re at it, pin where you parked your car if you drove there.

What & how to pick

SEE, FEEL & TASTE – Colour can be a good indicator of ripeness, but not always. Most fruits such as figs, citrus, olives, grapes, and others need to be soft on the touch most of all. Or before picking many from the same tree, have a taste there and then. In my experience, mandarines can often look and feel unripe but when you taste them, they surprise you delightfully.

CHECK THE GROUND – Look around the ground in back alleys as you will be surprised to find heaps. I estimate 1/4 of my harvest is found on the ground. Although not always perfect, they will still often be tasty. Keep in mind that some fruit like passionfruit is actually at its perfect ripeness when it falls to the ground. A pro tip is to go foraging right after windy weather.

TWIST IT – If the fruit doesn’t come off easily, and you didn’t’ bring scissors, twist rather than pull. They will come off easier, but it will also reduce the risk of pulling a whole branch off and damaging the tree.

IDENTIFIER APPS – I don’t have one myself but I’ve seen a few identifying apps in work which seemed awesome. However, be careful and prudent when picking food out of the ordinary to avoid poisoning.

Common fruit

Here’s a bit of info about common fruit to come across while urban foraging in Melbourne.

Citrus fruit

Citrus fruit is the most common harvest for urban foraging in Melbourne. We have discovered lemon, lime, kaffir lime, mandarins, oranges, and even grapefruit!

THE SCRATCH TEST – To identify different types of citrus fruit (go tell the difference between lime or underripe lemon?), rather than picking it in vein, scratch it with your nail and smell which fruit it is. Works weirdly well!

WHEN TO PICK – It really depends on the fruit and its specific varieties. A general rule is that citrus peak from autumn to late winter.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR – Citrus fruit grows on trees that can become pretty big. The branches grow upwards (not sideways), so definitively look up to find citrus fruit. They are also evergreen trees (a tree with leaves all year round).

WHICH TO PICK – Colour will definitively help establishing is citrus fruit is ripe as long as you know which variety they are (see picking test above). Citrus does not ripen after picking, so pick them ripe. However, if you see unripe citrus on the ground, go ahead and pick them, they’ll still do the job for citrus water.

HOW TO STORE – Citrus can be kept on the kitchen counter, but will keep for longer in the fridge.

HOW TO PRESERVE – Since citrus fruit is one of the most common fruits (in Melbourne at least), you might get over-excited and have heaps. To best preserve them, you can freeze them in multiple ways: cut them in slices (space out on a tray for freezing, once frozen, gather in one container), press the juice and freeze in ice cube tray (grate the zest first and freeze or dry the zest), freeze in slices or freeze whole. Once thawed, all these variations can be used in cooking, for drinks, cocktail decorations, 

Figs

WHEN TO PICK – Mainly from Summer to Autumn. Some in early Winter too.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR – Figs grows on trees with big broad leaves. The trees can become pretty big. The branches are thin and grow sideways. They are deciduous trees (a tree that sheds leaves in Winter).

WHICH TO PICK – Soft on the touch, the neck wilts, the figs are heavy and drop down (instead of being perpendicular to the branch), and the bottom is flat, almost bursting. There are both green and purple varieties so don’t rely on color to indicate ripeness. Figs do not ripen after picking, so pick them ripe.

HOW TO STORE – Store in the crisper drawer of your fridge. Best eaten in the 5 next days.

HOW TO PRESERVE – Figs can also be frozen whole, sliced, or peeled in a container. They can also be dried in the oven or in a dehydrator.

Passionfruit

WHEN TO PICK – From late autumn to late winter.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR – Passionfruit grows on vines that tend to climb sideways on fences. They’re really easy to recognize thanks to their beautiful unique flowers (purple flower above). The vines have small rather dark glossy leaves that stay on the vine all year.

WHICH TO PICK – They first grow inside a thin yellow flower-like wrapping. Then, when unripe, they are orange/yellow and smooth on the surface. In general, passionfruit will fall off the tree when they’re perfectly ripe (check the ground!). However, you can still pick them when they are plump or wrinkly with a dark purple/brown color.

HOW TO STORE – Passionfruit can mold easily, so keep somewhere airy (not in a bag), and preferably in the fridge. They can keep ut to a week.

HOW TO PRESERVE – Open and freeze passionfruit meat in the ice cube trays.

Pomegranate

WHEN TO PICK – Late autumn to winter.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR – The pomegranate tree looks rather bushy with many small glossy leaves. The tree usually does not grow very tall and is deciduous.

WHICH TO PICK – Pick pomegranate with a deep red color. Pomegranate does not ripen after being picked. When ripe, you should hear a metallic sound when you tap your finger on it. Ripe pomegranate is also heavier and dense. Pomegranates often burst from internal pressure as they ripen, which is a sign that they’re juicy and ready to eat. Just make sure there are no signs of birds or bats or rodents having nibbled at the exposed flesh.

HOW TO STORE – Pomegranate should be stored in the fridge and can be kept for a really long time (weeks).

Herbs

WHEN TO PICK – All year.

WHICH TO PICK – Since councils are allowed to spray back alleys and streets, I avoid all herbs that grow on the ground. I do pick herbs that stick out from fences. This applies therefore mostly to rosemary and mint, sometimes lemon verbena. Note that the leaves on kaffir/makrut lime trees are also edible and usable as a lemony herb.

PICKING FOR CUTTINGS – You can grow most herbs with one piece of cutting. Just cut a piece of the herb, water until roots grow (change the water every few days), and then plant. When picking for cuttings, picking “fresh” branches (thinner, less woody) will increase your chances for successful root growth.

HOW TO STORE – Hardy herbs such as rosemary and thyme can be stored on the kitchen counter in a glass of water, whereas softer ones should be in the fridge. They can be kept in a glass with a plastic bag on top to keep the moisture, or in a herb pod.

HOW TO PRESERVE – Rosemary and thyme are the easiest to dry to keep long term. Forget about drying them in a dehydrator, not only will they lose flavor. Simply tie them up and hang them somewhere where they can be left untouched.

Olives

WHEN TO PICK – Mid-autumn to early winter.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR – Olives grow on trees with thin long leaves. The leaves are light green, and almost grey/silver sometimes.

WHICH TO PICK – Olives are never edible straight from the tree so they need to be brined or juiced to remove the bitterness. This obviously means, don’t taste them to see if they’re ready.

Green and black olives aren’t two different varieties, they’re just olives at two different stages of ripeness. Olives go from dark green and rock hard (not ripe at all, do not pick), to light soft green and hard (technically underripe, but also ready to be picked), to brown/black and soft (ready to be picked). Some varieties are tastier when they’re picked green (picholine), and some are when they are black (kalamata). Since you will probably be unable to identify the variety of the olive tree you are picking, go for either light green or black ones. Note that black ones are more delicate and should be handled with care to not be bruised.

HOW TO STORE – Picked olives should be prepared the same day for long term storage.

HOW TO PRESERVE – There are multiple ways to cure olives. In brine is the most common method, but you can also preserve them in salt. Milkwood has a great article about both preserving methods.

Other fruit you can come across

The above mentioned fruit are the most common to find in Melbourne back alleys.

Apart from those listed below, we’ve has also found persimmon, tomatoes, grapes, apples, pears, berries, chilies, capsicum, pumpkin, and zucchini!

Flowers

To finish off, I would advise you to pick flowers, leaves and branches on the way to make yourself a bouquet. Who says no to a beautiful, plastic-free, and local flower bouquet?!

I hope you enjoyed this article and will do some foraging of your own. Follow Mathilde’s Instagram account for weekly inspiration. And tag me or her in your foraging Insta shots.

Happy foraging!

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