Our part of the Sierra Foothills was once (and still is) famous for growing fruit. The first fruit shipped by rail from California to the East Coast was grown in Placer County. Many of the folks in the generation just older than my own spent their summers picking and packing pears, peaches, and other tree fruit. While disease, urban sprawl and competition wiped out most large-scale commercial orchards in the 1970s through the 1990s, fruit production is making a comeback here. But this story is about the joys of “feral” fruit rather than commercial production. Feral fruit comes from trees and vines that were planted long ago and managed to survive challenges like pear blight, pavement and drought. Feral fruit is one of the unexpected delights of my livelihood of shepherding!
One of the ranches we lease was once a cherry and persimmon orchard. Most of the cherry trees died long ago (somebody once told me that cherry trees are like sheep – they’re born looking for a place to die). Fortunately, not all of the cherry trees on the old Musso place (they called the ranch the Number 7) died (nor have my sheep). If I can beat the birds to the tree, I can gorge myself with incredible cherries in May. The Number 7, along with another ranch we lease, also grew plums. I’m not sure what variety the plums are, but I know they are incredibly sweet if we pick them when they’re soft.
Following the plums, our feral fruit pursuits turn to vines. Himalayan blackberries are an incredibly invasive weed for most of the year – their brambles can make building fence or irrigating pasture miserable. However, in July and early August, their shiny black fruits are often part of my lunch. I think my favorite ice cream is homemade blackberry – it’s definitely worth braving the thorns!
At some point every August, I awake to a morning that feels like autumn – something about the air temperature and scent, I think. I start looking for pears and figs in late August. On the Number 7, there are still a few Bartlett pear trees that survived the decline that wiped out Placer County’s pear industry in the 1970s. You’ve not tasted a proper pear until you’ve picked a tree-ripened Bartlett that’s still warm from the sun. I think the lack of regular irrigation makes the fruit even sweeter. Another pasture that we graze features a giant fig tree that was planted by a bird many years ago. Tree-ripened figs are just as good as the pears – I can’t wait for this year’s crop to be ready!
As we move into autumn, the feral apples start to ripen. With the prevalence of coddling moth in our area, these apples are usually protein enhanced. If my pocket knife happens to be clean (usually an iffy proposition), I’ll cut the offending worm out of the apple. These feral apples are usually pretty small – just the right size for a snack when I’m out moving sheep.
In late October and November, the persimmons at the old Number 7 start to ripen. There are more than 100 old persimmon trees still producing fruit on the ranch – mostly Hachiyas (the astringent persimmons that have to be soft before you eat them), with a few chocolate Fuyus in the mix as well. The sheep love the persimmons that fall. My girls and I test the fruit until we find a soft one. The flesh is the consistency of custard, and we all go home sporting orange chins. Several years ago, we learned how to make omigaki – firm Hachiya persimmons that are “cured” by dipping the petiole into 100 proof vodka and then sealing them up for 10 days. We’ve decided that it’s our favorite way to eat persimmons.
I thoroughly enjoy the fruit I purchase or trade for at our farmers’ market. Fruit grown by dedicated, professional farmers is wonderful. On the other hand, the unexpected “wild” fruit tree is an incredible delight, especially when I come upon one when I’m hungry!