Nothing tastes quite like an apple from someone else’s orchard.
“In some countries, szaber, meaning ‘scrumping’, is legal. In Sweden, everything that grows is common property,” says Zbigniew Sierszuła, art historian and master liqueur maker. “There are no fences. It is legal to gather any agricultural produce, but there is a custom of respecting ownership. Likewise, the Swedish smörgåsbord is a way of serving food whereby guests have the option of a number of dishes from which to make themselves a full meal that meets their culinary and dietary tastes. When eating from a smorgasbord, you can usually eat your fill for a fixed price. One person will eat more, another less – it all depends on what they need. There is no abuse of the system.
“This caught on around the world, and in Poland, too. I remember from my childhood that a village lady used to come to our house and she always brought something from her garden – plums, cherries or apples – because she had too much and, thanks to this, we had supplies for the winter. My granny made preserves and jams. We didn’t buy fruit. A Mr Bishop used to come to us with jars of honey and, because my mother ran a stationery shop, she would organize full sets of stationery for his children for school. It was an example of exchange and good relations. It was always without cash and without comparing costs. In balance. We can work with nature in the same way.”
Pockets full of cherries
The Polish word szaber comes from Yiddish, where it means ‘crowbar’ – in Hebrew, szabar means to ‘break’. Szaber, according to Władysław Kopaliński, is “to loot things left without ownership because of natural disasters, social turmoil or wars.” Kopaliński takes the etymology of the word from the German schaben (‘to scrape’) and Schiefer (‘slate’ or ‘splinter’), related to schieben (‘to slide’). The Polish Dictionary, edited by Mieczysław Szymczak, defines szaber as taking over ownership of things left unattended or abandoned, as well as a noun for the goods looted in this manner.
“In our village we used to go ‘scrumping’. Once the owner caught us and we had to sit in the tree for a long time; I remember this, because I really needed to pee,” recalls Lidia Zawistowska, a 25-year-old with a passion for culinary culture who today lives in Copenhagen. She comes from Jutrzyna in Lower Silesia, a village that was founded under German law by the Knights Templar; it was definitely already there in the 13th century.
“In Jutrzyna, at my parents’ house, walnuts and hazelnuts grow in the ditches along the roadsides. Everyone has always gone to pick them. I asked my grandfather about it. He said that, in the 1950s, the locals used to sit by the ditches and guard the trees because they were growing next to their fields, so they considered them to be their property. But there were other ways. When my grandfather was ten years old, he went with his friends to get cherries and, under the tree, there was a dog kennel with a dog on a long chain guarding the fruit. The boys began to run around the tree trunk and the dog got tangled up in its chain, so they took advantage of the moment and climbed up the tree to fill their pockets with cherries. Then they saw the farmer running towards them with a scythe, so they had to make a quick escape. It was very exciting, because it was forbidden fruit. When I was a child, we simply asked our neighbours if we could pick some strawberries or peaches and ate them on the spot with our dirty hands. I never heard anyone in our village use the word ‘scrumping’. These days children don’t go scrumping; there aren’t enough fruit trees. Also, no-one can be bothered.”
Everyone’s, or mine?
Dorota, from Warsaw (we didn’t meet in person, but on a Facebook group called ‘Freeganism, dumpster diving, food sharing – Warsaw’) told me that she has a garden that she visits for sentimental reasons. From the 1950s until 2009, her family used it legally, because her grandfather worked for the railways, which came with a flat and an allotment close to Warszawa-Włochy station. He died, but, while her grandmother was still alive, she continued to use the garden along with her family. After her death, the house was liquidated, but the garden remained, with its 50 to 60-year-old apple trees, pear trees and cherry trees. For over 10 years, it has been allowed to run wild. The plot is in between the train tracks so no developer will buy it. Dorota and her family go there in the spring to pick violets; there’s a whole field of them that she preserves in sugar and lemon. In the summer, she picks the blackcurrants, gooseberries and apricots; later, the pears, plums and apples. She knows precisely what grows where.
“Although there are no buildings on this land, there are increasing numbers of homeless people there. There is a bench and that’s enough for them,” says Dorota. “They’ve taken over the garden. They pick the fruit, but also leave a mess. The cherry tree has split and gives less and less fruit. Someone crushed the walnuts against the trunk of the walnut tree, but didn’t eat them. It is sad to look at the wilderness that my grandparents’ home has become.”
The drive to explore
Gosia Ruszkowska is one of the Mead Ladies – a duo who run workshops about gathering and cooking wild edible plants. Together with Kaja Nowakowska, they are into herbs, fermentation, phototherapy, natural diets and organizing ethno-botanical trips.
“It started with scrumping,” says Gosia. “Kaja is a biologist, and I am a passionate amateur naturalist. We became educators. We take people to neglected places: abandoned allotments and ownerless orchards. Warsaw used to be full of orchards; there were greenhouses and tonnes of trees. You can see traces of this today. For example, next to Starbucks on Solidarności Street, just next to Gruba Kaśka [‘Fat Katie’, a famous well – ed. note] grows ‘Starking’, an old variety of apple tree that produces juicy red apples. I picked some beautiful apples there last year (‘Starking’ fruits late, at the end of October). Of course, I eat fruit like that. The farmed orchards in Poland are next to roads and motorways. Being afraid of eating apples from the city seems absurd to me. If you want to find cleaner regions where you can ‘scrump’ freely, I recommend buying a six-hour ticket for the Mazovian Railways, for example in the direction of Celestynów. Get on the train and get out when the forest appears. Walk about. Look around you. Explore.”
In the past, the city was sufficiently large for botanical foraging. Agnieszka Rudzińska, who works professionally as an international cultural manager, but who privately has lived in Józefosław on the outskirts of Warsaw for over 20 years, recalls: “In the beginning we saw the urbanization of villages and farmland here. We were surrounded by small houses and farms. If we went towards the forest, we passed tractors and jumping crows. When my now grown-up son Szymon was a toddler, I used to go for walks with him along the fields. I saw unpicked vegetables; carrots or cabbages, which was completely against my personal philosophy. I thought, if you grow your own food, you’ll be safe. You gather the harvest from the field to complete the process and to avoid waste. This is a different approach to food than going to a shop. On the edge of the field there was a cherry tree. The children used to watch it and wait patiently for the fruit; the jelly from those cherries was a dream. In the end, the cherry tree was chopped down. I don’t know who it was bothering. Now everything is even, tidy and covered in ‘Bauma’ red brick paving.”
The two girls from Mead Ladies won’t reveal the best city locations for scrumping. They explain that they don’t want people to overuse them. Do you want to go foraging in no-man’s land? If so, get out into the bushes!
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz