If you’ve never tried a quince, you’re missing out on this kissing cousin of pears and apples. In fact, a quince looks much like a big, lumpy pear. So even though quinces require a bit of elbow grease (huile de coude), a simple poach in a light sugar syrup transforms the humble quince into a succulent, almost intoxicating, substance.
Ripe for the kicking
Cheese shops here in Paris often sell pâte de fruit, a fruit paste or bar, dense with quince flavor. The paste is wonderful served alongside a piece of comté cheese. You’ll find quinces in Paris at most markets in the fall and winter, including the Marché d’Aligre, where I offer market tours. But clever foragers in the French countryside never pay for their quinces – they find them.
Known as glaneurs or grapilleurs, those who pick up potatoes or apples along their country stroll are ripe for the kicking ! Since many landowners get angry at the wily walkers who take their vegetables and fruit (even the pieces lying on the ground, detached from the plant), the landowners consider them as chapardeurs, or petty thiefs.
But if the fruit is just going to rot on the ground, isn’t it better that someone takes it ? When I lived in the western Loire Valley, there seemed to be a lot of informal rules about taking fruit. Some locals told me that if the branch of a fruit tree hangs over onto the voie publique, or public road, we’re even allowed to pick the fruit from it – but only from that overhanging branch.
Quinces are the exception. Some people told me that a quince, even on the ground, was interdit, or forbidden, to take. But I learned later that glanage and grapillage are actually protected by French law – so the forbidden fruit, as it were, is often completely legal in the French countryside.
Cozy up to Mother Nature
According to article 673 of the French civil code, we’re not allowed to pick any fruit from a tree or pick up any vegetables from a field until after the harvest is over. But once the rest of the crop has been taken away, it’s open season on gleaning.
With so much emphasis placed on reducing food waste nowadays – such as with a French law banning supermarkets from throwing away food – why not take advantage of what nature offers ? Hunting for mushrooms, gathering elderberries and blackberries, or picking up walnuts : these are all legal activities of course, and finding food in the wild is a gratifying task because it lets us cozy up to Mother Nature.
But is free food taboo ? According to groups like Ondine and Fruimalin (“clever fruit”), organized gleaning is a way to help with crop rotation in the countryside and provides employment. But what if you’re a city-dweller ?
In Paris, I’ve taken advantage many times of what I call “pre-gleaning” : when the market is coming to an end, merchants tend to bradent, or discount, their items. And then after the market is officially over, I see people pick up and sort through over-ripe fruit that is too fragile to take back to the farm. And in 29 different cities in France, there is an official “Gleaner’s Tent” set up in the marketplace !
Many years ago, a friend of mine would practice gleaning after the Raspail organic market here in Paris, where prices were prohibitively expensive. Today’s glaneurs – in the city, we’d call them urban foragers – are not quite what we see in Jean-François Millet’s 1867 painting Gleaners (above ; on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris).
Belgian film-maker Agnès Varda made a documentary about modern-day foragers : The Gleaners and I follows farmers, retirees, and both salaried and unemployed workers, anywhere they might forage : in the countryside, of course, but also near the ocean or even in cities.
Gleaners, urban foragers, déchétariens ("trashitarians"), freegans – they’re all, if you’ll pardon the expression, ready to pick up where conventional food distribution has left off.
Photo of comté cheese and quince paste, © Jennifer Wang Photography
Photo of Mirabelle plums, © Planete solidaire et Fruimalin