I've been stealing from my neighbors. And I don't feel at all guilty.
For one thing, I doubt they'd care, if they even noticed. Ever since I started focusing on eating more locally, I've been staking out the fruit trees and noting where all the wild fennel, lavender, and rosemary grow on my jogs around our 'hood — and it really still is a 'hood on the Oakland side, even as Emeryville sprouts McLofts like yuppie mold.
So that's how I know that there's a whole row of lemon and mandarin orange trees in front of an old Emeryville warehouse about a half-mile away; several fig trees making a jailbreak from the overgrown backyard of a now-abandoned house (the old woman who used to live there was such a sweetheart); and an apricot tree positively bursting with fruit, with a branch or two dangling temptingly over the fence of a run-down, barricaded bungalow.
The last time I tried to "harvest," I was on a walk with Potato Non Grata, who is so easily embarrassed I had to abandon the attempt. But yesterday evening, while on a solo jog in shorts with baggy outside pockets, it was time to make my move. I was out of lemons. And I love lemons.
The citrus trees were already pretty picked over, but I found that by insinuating most of my upper torso into the dense tree centers, I could a) get spider webs in my eyelashes and b) find a few remaining greenish or cosmetically challenged lemons, plus a mandarin. When I emerged, a woman and her dog were eyeing me suspiciously. I strolled off, wiping the sticky strands from my face as if I boost lemons all the time.
The figs, alas, were green, rubbery, and far from ripe, although my Western Garden book says they should be ready in June. At the house with the apricots, I checked that the coast was clear, then swiftly plucked a handful of the low-hanging small orange fruits and ran for it, my pockets so misshapen with lemons that my shorts resembled saddlebags on a pack mule.
Back at home, I washed and devoured most of the apricots, then fed the last one to Potato Non Grata.
"Yum," he said. "But that's not an apricot."
OK, so it's been a while since I've had one. They're never ripe at the grocery store, and I just haven't bought any from the markets because the peaches have been so good. "Are you sure?"
"Well, it wasn't fuzzy," he pointed out. "And it didn't taste like apricot, exactly."
True, the skins were smooth, not at all downy, and the flesh, while delicious, was not overly sweet — more like cantaloupe in both flavor and texture. "So what were they?"
"I have no idea. Something edible, I hope for both our sakes."
"Of course it is," I said with more certainty than I felt. My wimpy, city-girl stomach lurched.
I Googled. And I Googled. Eventually I figured out they were loquats, also known as Japanese plums. Score! An even more exciting heist. I went back for another haul — this time on my bike, with scissors and a bag. Lest you think me totally amoral, I did consider ringing the bell and asking permission — there were hundreds of ripe loquats on that tree – but to reach the front door meant opening a gate and braving a weed-choked walkway. No one seemed to be home, anyway: all the windows were closed.
So I helped myself. Alas, I could only reach a handful more on the sidewalk side of the fence. (Next time, I'm waiting for darkness and bringing a stepladder.)
During my Google travels I had seen a recipe for pork with loquats and strawberries in Madeira sauce, which sounded perfect as I had defrosted some Niman Ranch boneless pork earlier. I didn't have Madeira, but I did have some cooking sherry -- close enough -- and while I'd finished all our strawberries for lunch, I had some freshly frozen ones from a flat I got last weekend from Swanton Berry Farms.
(I also made jam with some of those strawberries, using chopped-up apple for the pectin, but it didn't come out too well. I added extra lemon juice at the end while it was boiling, stupidly just because I had some left over, and the jam has a slightly sour undertone. It also didn't really set. I read that loquat is high in pectin and helpful for jam; I might try again.)
The chops came out great — I don't think you can go wrong with pork and fruit. We had a salad of baby butter lettuce, cucumber, and radishes, all from Blue Heron Farm (paid for!), dressed with my new Stonehouse California olive oil and (imported) balsamic. It was a damn tasty meal, the Potato agreed.
And I think it was all the better for being part stolen. Forbidden fruit does indeed taste sweeter.