Fall has a special place in my heart. When I was a kid, until I left my parents’ home to go to university, as soon as the grapes would start to ripen, I’d go around the yard and get myself a bunch of sweetest ones, usually by holding up the bottom of my T-shirt for an impromptu fruit-picking bucket. Then I’d sit in one of my special places under the quince trees and eat them. One by one, green, black and red spheres, all juicy and sweet, their flavour divinely irresistible.
I grew up in the heart of Transylvania, its lively beats faster each September when the air was thick with the flavour of ripening fruit and the trees would start shedding the occasional leaf. One of the fall traditions was wine making. My grandparents and parents too, my aunts and uncles, they all did that. Neighbours too. I loved this fall ritual and looked forward to it every year. Though I’d eat handfuls of grapes every day, at night too sometimes when I was lying under the stars, my dog snuggled close, by the time we picked all grapes in our yard, there was a considerable amount of green, red and black ones.
They got squished into a fragrant mush and left in long wooden vats for a couple of days, stems and all. Then the thick fragrant soup got transferred into the press. My favourite part. My sister and I would get a glass of freshly squeezed grape juice, and then ask for another shortly after. My Mom would accurately predict an incoming tummy ache and she was right every time.
You’d think that’d be enough for us to consider a more moderate approach, but it was just so good and short-lived, that we figured it was well worth a short-lived tummy trouble.
Then there were apples, and pears and some late summer peaches that were so big I’d have to cup my hands around them. Branches were droopy, heavy with fruit. Our hearts were full to the brim too, with gratitude though. My Dad would carefully place some of the apples and pears in one layer on the upper shelves in the cellar. The grapes that had been selected to be preserved were hanging in bunches on a thick hemp rope from one end of the cellar to another. Come December, my Dad would always have a victorious smile on his face as he’d present us a plate full of grapes. Slightly withered, fragrance intensified during cellar time, a treat like no other.
On one side of the cellar there were the three oak barrels holding the year’s grape harvest, each with a glass pipe that would let us know when the fermentation began (the carbon dioxide would make the water in the convoluted glass pipe ‘boil’.)
The air was rich with all the smells of fall, and given the diverse bounty, I suspect my Mom cooked less during the month of September, as us kids usually showed up inside at the end of the day with our tummies full. Past our satisfied grins and the occasional grape leaf stuck in our hair, our sticky hands and faces told the rest of the story.
Everyone who lived in a house with a yard was busy doing the same, more or less, depending on the type of harvest they had. Kids hanging out and helping with the odd job here and there were learning the secrets of the trade year after year, and they were learning how much gratitude was packed in each bucketful of grapes, apples or pears.
I got reminded by all of that during the end of this summer by taking part in a few harvests through the Gleaning Abundance Project (GAP) run by the Kamloops Food Policy Council. Kamloops truly should be called the city of plenty when it comes to fruit offerings, that’s how much there is out there. A recent leg injury prevented me from picking, but during the time I was out there, both harvesting and helping with kitchen work, I got to see the plenitude from up close. A tentative estimate for this year’s fruit harvest by GAP is over 12,000 pounds with over half of it donated to good causes (92,000 pounds since 2013!). This year pears reigned supreme but every year’s harvest is different and very much worth being a part of those who make it happen. It’s not just the picking itself, but the connection with people who work alongside you. Much like I remember from my childhood. A celebration of people and nature goodness.
Much like the rest of the ‘grow your food’ stories, the stories of fall bounty and its many learning opportunities can only live on if we choose to make it. So go out and pick fruit (contact GAP for this year’s remaining harvests and have your name down for next year’s too,) buy some from the farmer’s market (‘seconds’ by the way are usually almost perfect, and only serves as a rather embarrassing reminder of the kind of perfectionist expectation world we live in) and taste and smell the fall through its various gifts. Yes, I know that we can get apples at the store year-round but none will be as crunchy and fragrant as the freshly-ripened, just-picked that you will find at the market.
Take a bunch of grapes and smell them. Better yet, close your eyes when you do that. There. Now you know why this column was inspired by a bunch of grapes I got after a GAP kitchen session. I ate some sitting on the back stairs, wind ruffling my hair and memories of times past revived as I held them in my hands and ate each grape with reverence. As I should.
GAP can be contacted via their website at http://kamloopsfoodpolicycouncil.com/gleaningabundance/. You can register as a volunteer, or you can register your tree or garden for being harvested.