It's already oppressively hot when I leave the Hudson Valley and its picturesque apple orchards one early September morning to go down to New York City to forage for apples. I'm meeting up with Alex Wilson, a transplanted Brit full of rambunctious energy who now makes cider in the Catskills, and Dan Pucci, a coolheaded Catskills-born former sommelier. Dan is also the cider director at Wassail, a restaurant and cider bar on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, where I am a co-owner.
We meet at 90th and Riverside Park and take off in search of an apple tree Alex had spotted off the promenade a few days earlier. After squeezing through a gate and descending curving stone steps to a graffiti-covered landing where a homeless person had left a nest of bedding and cardboard, we see the tree. It's big, probably over 50 years old, with a coppiced trunk. Its branches are full of medium-sized, greenish yellow apples.
We jump down from the landing, passing another makeshift bed nestled in between two trees. This time there's someone inside, but he doesn't seem bothered by the three people with backpacks who are crashing through the underbrush past him. We make our way around to the other side of the tree, a grassy strip next to the Henry Hudson Parkway, full of apples that have already fallen. Preferring not to get "drops," as they're known, Alex grabs hold of a branch and starts whipping it back and forth as more apples fall around us. Dan and I fill his backpack. We look up and see branches higher than we can reach, full of ripe fruit.
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Alex, in shorts and flip-flops given the heat, scampers up the trunk barefoot, quickly reaching the upper branches. More apples rain down as Dan and I pick the drops below. On his way back down, pointy suckers tear at Alex's bare legs and his shins are soon covered in bleeding cuts. But his sympathy lies more with the tree, which shows signs of stress he's not used to seeing in apple trees upstate. We admire the resilience of this neglected, probably wild specimen, still producing incredible fruit after all these years as cars whiz past, oblivious.
"You have a radar for apples when it's your business to find old abandoned trees, so you don't turn that off when you're coming to the city. I noticed trees everywhere growing in the strangest places," says Alex, who forages upstate for Wayside Cider, a new cidery in Delhi, New York. He started snapping photos of his finds when making deliveries to bars and restaurants this summer, posting them to Instagram. Meanwhile, freshly nominated as one of Zagat's "30 Under 30," Dan is fast becoming an expert on cider and apples and couldn't help notice crab apples, pears, and hawthorn trees on his bike rides around the city. It wasn't long before these two discovered their mutual obsession and decided to team up and use the fruit they found to make one of America's oldest fermented drinks: cider!
This will be an ongoing effort, but the plan this year is to collect around 12 to 14 bushels, enough for a 30-gallon barrel that Alex will take upstate to ferment after triple-washing the apples and passing the juice through carbon to filter impurities. The cider will then age for six months in bourbon barrels, to be released at Wassail this spring. There is a Facebook page and an Indiegogo campaign in the works to raise funds to map out trees and re-plant cider-specific varieties that once grew here.
Dan and Alex are certainly not the first to be interested in found fruit. There is a longtime tradition of urban gleaning, and a more recent trend of cidermakers, orchardists, and apple detectives identifying forgotten varieties of apples in abandoned orchards. But to my knowledge, they are the first to make urban cider in New York City entirely out of foraged apples. Their Instagram posts have attracted a small, devoted group of followers who give them tips on where to find trees. "All the trees have just existed, but they've been forgotten," Dan says as we set off to our next foraging spot by the Hudson River Greenway. "I like the idea of reclaiming some agricultural part of our history by doing something with the fruit and making cider."
We walk through a tunnel that opens to the waterfront. To our left are two crab apple trees full of little green fruits tinged with orange about the size of olives or small cherries. We start picking until Dan spots an official-looking pickup slowly making its way toward us.
The truck stops and a young man leans out and asks what we're doing. "Picking apples to make cider," Dan says.
After pretending to bust us, the man jokes, "Nah, I love cider!" It turns out he's the supervising gardener for the Riverside Park Conservancy, and he got interested in horticulture while practicing martial arts in a community garden in Brooklyn when he was a kid. We exchange cards and he drives off, promising to come to the barrel-release event in spring.
Over a century ago, America was home to thousands of varieties of apples planted by colonial settlers as part of their land grants. These trees produced wildly different fruit than the large, sugary orbs we are familiar with today. They were knobby, sour little things that were so tart and bitter they were called "spitters"—admirable qualities in a fruit grown for drinking more than eating. Many of the crab apples in city parks were probably planted as ornamentals, but no one is stopping squirrels and birds from doing their biological duty to spread seeds. The stray apple core someone tossed out of a window to take root helps in much the same way. That explains the trees Alex and Dan have found growing in improbable places, because apples are known as "extreme heterozygotes": Their seeds will produce a fruit completely different than its parent, making these wild trees unique. They are also probably great for making cider.
We dump our morning spoils into some apple boxes in the back of Alex's car. Total haul: 1.5 bushels. They've already harvested 11 bushels, just another eight to go. Next stop: Central Park.
As we walk from 105th Street down to 72nd, these two later-day Daniel Boones stop in front of anything that looks vaguely edible to investigate. Dan is the first to nonchalantly pop something in his mouth and spit it out if it's not interesting. He peels off for work and, after a not-very-productive haul in the park, Alex and I grab a taxi back to his car because it's already mid-afternoon and we need to get to Red Hook in Brooklyn.
We drive to an unkempt commercial lot near Pier 44, where Dan and Wassail's pastry chef, Rebecca Eichenbaum, a fellow foraging enthusiast, harvested a bunch of pears a few weeks ago. We spot some trees along a new fence and climb on a precarious pile of cinderblocks and lumber to get a closer look. The apples are clearly a culinary variety that were planted at some point along with seckel pears and a fig tree in a neat row. It's a wonder they are still here, each new layer of wood attesting to the ever-shifting history of this now fast-gentrifying neighborhood. A heavy-set parking attendant shows up and we ask if he knows the history of this place, pointing to the tree. "Wow, I never noticed that before," he says. "It used to be all farmland here once. They raised dairy cows. You know the story about why this is called Buttermilk Channel?" he asks pointing to the tidal straight between Red Hook and Governor's Island. "They'd walk 'em out when the tide was low to graze. Since their udders were full, the water would get milky."
In the city, foraging leads to all sorts of surprises. Drinking a beer afterwards at Sunny's, a bar in that's been around since 1890, golden light filters through the windows. "People love to pick something fresh and bite into it," Alex muses. "In a city where no one speaks to each other, it's like everyone speaks the language of fruit."