Hidden Harvest gathers Ottawa’s unwanted fruit and nuts

When Karen Keskinen looked out at her big backyard last summer, the bounty actually bothered her.

Last fall, volunteers harvested about 500 pounds of apples, crab apples, grapes and black walnuts, with more than half of what they picked going to the local food bank. Photo by Graham Irvine, Graham Irvine Photography

“It has this huge backyard and a pergola that was just covered with Concord grapes,” says Keskinen, who rents her home in Old Ottawa South. “I’d go out and pick some of them, but I’m a party of one — I couldn’t begin to use them all. My neighbours didn’t want them and the owner, who now lives in a seniors’ home, couldn’t use them.”

After some searching around on the Internet, she found Hidden Harvest Ottawa, a new group dedicated to picking and sharing fruits and nuts that would otherwise go to waste.

Hidden Harvest contacted a team of volunteers, some of whom arrived on their bicycles, and 80 pounds of grapes were picked within an hour. Most of the grapes were delivered to the Centretown Emergency Food Centre.

“It was such a treat for our clients,” says Kerry Kaiser, co-ordinator of the centre, which has seen a 20-per-cent increase in need over the past 18 months, including many more families with young children. “Grapes are an expensive luxury we would never buy and they could never afford. They were just the best thing in the world.”

For her part, Keskinen says she was “just charmed” by the volunteers and the whole concept of Hidden Harvest.

“It was just an extraordinary feeling to have this fruit, that would have died on the vine, providing nutrient-rich, sunshine-filled food to people who need it.”

One basket of grapes was reserved for the home’s owner. Keskinen says that when she brought the grapes to him, and explained how the rest were used, “he almost teared up. It meant a lot to him.”

Hidden Harvest Ottawa is less than a year old, but its mandate resonates with time-honoured traditions as well as similar groups that have sprung up across Canada and the Europe.

“There’s an innate human drive to not want to waste food,” says Katrina Siks, 31, who came up with idea for starting the Ottawa group with Jason Garlough, 35, over a glass of fresh-pressed cider made from windfall apples at a friend’s cottage.

Garlough says that somewhere along the line, “we’ve got to the point where we recognize an apple tree, or even a black walnut, but we no longer see it as food.”

Garlough, who used to sit on the City of Ottawa’s forest and green space advisory committee, said they’d get monthly reports about fallen apples and nuts — as problems.

“When fruit falls on a sidewalk, or someone else’s lawn, it can be a bit of liability,” says Garlough. “Similarly, nuts are hard and can cause problems on walkways. The solution was to cut the trees down.”

At the same time, as a member of the board of Ottawa-area group Just Food, Garlough was hearing about how food banks were facing unprecedented demand — 48,000 people go to an Ottawa-area food bank each month — at the same time as food prices are rising.

“So on one side, we’ve got all the excess fruit, while on the other, we have this need,” says Garlough.

He and Siks quit their day jobs — she with a sustainable cycle-touring company and he in software consulting for the federal government — and took pay cuts to start Hidden Harvest Ottawa, to try to make more sense of the equation.

Garlough says they’ve already made a list of more than 4,000 unharvested fruit- and nut-bearing trees on City of Ottawa property alone, and that represents just one-fifth of all the City-owned land.

“That’s a lot of potential,” he says. “An average orchard in Eastern Ontario is just 1,800 trees.”

And those 4,000 trees don’t take into account trees on National Capital Commission land or ones like Keskinen’s, on private property.

“We’re starting small — we did 10 harvests last fall,” says Siks. In all, the group collected about 500 pounds of fruit and nuts, with more than half going to food banks. “But the real point,” she says, “is to create a culture that supports fruit-bearing trees.”

Siks and Garlough say that means everything from “living in a city where a child knows where the nearest apple tree is” to replacing some of the huge number of trees that will be lost due to the Emerald Ash Borer with ones that bear fruit.

And lest you think they’ve confused our climate with Niagara’s, Siks and Garlough will list more than a dozen types of trees that are already thriving in the Ottawa area that bear edible fruit and nuts — everything from mulberries and serviceberries to black walnuts, ginkgo trees and even Korean pines (which bear the pine nuts used in cooking).

As they started setting up last spring, Garlough and Siks studied similar groups across Canada and around the world.

“We’re far behind Europe,” says Garlough. “Groups like Abundance Network in the U.K. are doing some amazing work. Towns in England have adopted their own cultivars and they’re proud of them. It would be like Hintonburg having its own cultivar of apple.”

They say that the five-year-old Toronto group Not Far from the Tree — which picked 12,512 pounds of fruit and nuts in 2012 — is a great example, but they plan to operate somewhat differently.

“Not Far from the Tree is a non-profit,” says Garlough, “which is great, but it means that they depend on grants and donations, and you can run into donor fatigue.”

Hidden Harvest aims to be self-sufficient within three years, building in revenue streams through such measures as tree sales, workshops on making preserves and possibly even selling products. “Why not a Hidden Harvest jam?” Garlough asks.

Already last fall, they put on a canning workshop, with some of the participants doing everything from picking the grapes, to making jam (see the recipe below) and taking it to the local Harvest Noir event.

“It’s not just about getting the work done,” says Siks. “We also want it to be a celebration of the local harvest.”

For her part, Keskinen says she was so impressed with the Hidden Harvest concept, she has now involved students in the public relations class she teaches at Carleton University in making a communications plan.

“We’re trying to loop in with local chefs and commercial kitchens,” says Keskinen. “I sense from the enthusiasm in fourth-year university students that they are seeing this as a very food-friendly city. Gleaning really is an old-fashioned term that’s new again. It’s taking the concept of local food to a new level.”

Hidden Harvest Ottawa

What: A group devoted to picking and sharing fruits and nuts that would otherwise go to waste.

How you can get involved:

• You can buy a fruit-bearing tree for yourself or others, such as a high school or community housing project. Hidden Harvest is selling Heartnut and Asian Pear trees for $79 and serviceberry trees for $30. Order by March 31 for April pickup and delivery.

• You can volunteer to help pick fruit and nuts in your neighbourhood. You get to take home one-quarter of what you pick. “The age range goes from 11 to 70,” says Hidden Harvest’s Jason Garlough. “During the day we’ve had government ‘work-from-homers’ and mothers with children, and in the evening we’ve had the young smartphone hipster crowd.”

• You can donate your abundance. If you have a tree (or vine) that produces more fruit or nuts than you can handle, you can register it with Hidden Harvest so the excess is put to good use.

Contact: hiddenharvest.ca

Local Grape Jam

This is the recipe, based on one from Bernardin, that Hidden Harvest used to make a delicious grape jam at a canning workshop held last fall at Credible Edibles in Hintonburg.

Makes eight 250-mL jars

2.8 lbs (1.3 kg) concord grapes

3½ cups (875 mL) sugar

½ tsp (2 mL) butter (optional, to reduce foaming)

1 pouch pectin

1. Place 8 clean 250-mL mason jars on a rack in a boiling water canner; cover jars with water and heat to a simmer (180 F/82 C). Set screw bands aside. Heat sealing discs in hot water, not boiling (180 F/82 C). Keep jars and lids hot until ready to use.

2. Wash and drain grapes. With fingers, pinch individual grapes, separating skins and pulp into separate saucepans. Add ½ cup (125 mL) water to grape pulp. Bring to a boil; cover and boil gently, 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Press pulp through a sieve to remove seeds; set aside. Coarsely chop skins and return to saucepan; add just enough water to cover skins, then, over medium heat, boil gently, uncovered, until liquid is evaporated about 5 minutes. Add skins to seeded grape pulp. Measure 4½ cups (1.125 L) of grape mixture into a large, clean, deep stainless steel saucepan.

3. Stir in sugar and ½ tsp (2 mL) butter or margarine (this reduces foaming). Over high heat, bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. Add liquid pectin, squeezing entire contents from pouch. Return to boil; boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and skim off foam.

4. Quickly ladle hot jam into a hot jar to within ¼ inch (0.5 cm) of top of jar (headspace). Using non-metallic utensil, remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if required, by adding more jam. Wipe jar rim, removing any food residue. Centre hot sealing disc on clean jar rim. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip tight. Return filled jar to rack in canner. Repeat for remaining jam.

5. When canner is filled, ensure that all jars are covered by at least one inch (2.5 cm) of water. Cover canner and bring water to full rolling boil before starting to count processing time. Boil filled jars for 10 minutes.

6. When processing time is complete, remove canner lid, wait 5 minutes, then remove jars without tilting and place them upright on a protected work surface. Cool upright, undisturbed 24 hours; do not retighten screw bands.

7. After cooling, check jar seals. Sealed discs curve downward and do not move when pressed. Remove screw bands; wipe and dry bands and jars. Store screw bands separately or replace loosely on jars, as desired. Label and store jars in a cool, dark place. For best quality, use home canned foods within one year.

Preserved Grape Leaves

The group also preserved some of the Vitamin-A and calcium-rich grape leaves, to use stuffed with such Greek and Lebanese favourites as rice, chickpeas or ground meats mixed with herbs and spices.

Makes one 250-mL jar

3 dozen grape leaves

Sea salt

¼ cup (50 mL) lemon juice

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add enough salt to make it taste like sea water.

2. Bring a canning kettle or other large pot of water to a boil.

3. Fill a large bowl with ice water.

4. Dip the grape leaves in the boiling salted water for 30 to 45 seconds, then drop them into the ice water to cool. Drain them once all the leaves are fully cool.

5. Working with about 6 grape leaves at a time, roll them up from the side.

6. Pack the rolled leaves into the jar (you will likely need to fold one of the ends down to make them fit), leaving at least ½ inch (1.25 cm) of head space at the top of the jar.

7. Bring 1 cup (250 mL) of water to a boil and add the lemon juice. Boil for a minute or two, then pour over the grape leaves to cover them.

8. Clean the edges of the jar and seal the jar. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. Let cool and store in a cool, dark place for up to six months.

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