Residents of Roslyn may have seen him in the public parks or along roadways walking with his head down and a bag over his shoulder. Every once in awhile he’ll stop and bend over, pick something up and stash it away to be brought home. There it will join a multitude of foraged plants and fruit in jars on window sills, in the dining room and in the root cellar of his historic house gathering ambient yeast, fermenting. There’s dandelion, rose hip, yarrow and honey wine, mulberries in various stages of converting sugar into alcohol and CO2 and most of all apples. Apples from ancient trees, forgotten orchards and the side of the road.
Like many home fermenters, Erik Longabardi got the microorganism (OK, bug) with his first batch of kombucha during his twenties in his Brooklyn apartment. Around him was an embarrassment of riches.
“In Brooklyn there were farmers markets,” says Longabardi. “I had access to raw milk. I was going to Marlow & Sons, and learning about wine, and getting my palate used to different tastes and learning what I liked.” And in the meantime amassing an enviable wine collection.
In 2014, he and his wife, Julie, moved to Roslyn, and his food and shopping choices lessened. “I didn’t have a lot of options, but I did have a lot of land,” he says. So he founded an eight-vendor farmers market and started foraging in earnest.
“As a runner, I had a close view of the landscape,” he says. “Then I started studying the geology of the area, and the native and nonnative plants.” He learned those mulberries arrived on our shores due to the silk trade, and bird dropping help spread seeds. By fall, he encountered feral apples on the side of the road. Soon he spent the weekends driving around looking for old trees in abandoned orchards and preserves.
“I had all this knowledge,” he says, “and I knew I could create a cider based on the natural landscape around me.” All his pickings came from places not tainted by chemicals, he says, which he determines by checking the health of the surrounding grass and soil.
Like a mushroom hunter, Longabardi is hesitant to divulge his sites, but each tree has its own story, with varying degrees of provenance. “To me it’s more interesting to find something growing in a thicket of poison ivy,” he says, “rather than going to an orchard managed by people.”
Because he can’t accurately determine varieties, he assesses the apples by taste, checking for sugar content, tannins and acid. “Some have amazing characteristics,” he says. “You just know it’s the kind of apple you want to turn into a cider.”
His first batch was site specific: All the apples came from an 1880s homestead in Syosset.
“I’m on a backroad and see this house with a sign that said ‘free apples.’ My eyes lit up,” he says. “They were all mangled looking, misshapen and off color. These were my apples.”
He knocked on the door and the woman of the house showed him the 50 apple and pear trees her father had planted. Homestead Cider was born.
Later came a cider from apple trees in Cedarmere, a preserve that houses the estate of William Cullen Bryant. He also makes some cider from blends that include fruit found all within walking distance or a short drive from his house. He found a site at a local monastery and in his wife’s parents development. He found 60-year-old trees in Nassau—he won’t tell you where.
Thus all his ciders are made in small batches in bubbling glass carboys in that root cellar and bottled like wine in 375- and 750-milliliter bottles using crown caps. He keeps most in the cellar to age and then shares them with friends, or he and his wife open a bottle to share with dinner.
At the moment, his ciders are not legal to sell, but Longabardi is working on getting a license and a larger production venue to create what he calls a living thing, a form of medicine and an art project.
“It’s almost like a game,” he adds.