Erik Longabardi was driving along a congested, monotonous strip of the Cross Island Parkway in Queens when he spotted a row of apple trees growing on the side of the road.
It was unclear how they got there. Someone could have been eating an apple in a car and chucked it out the window. Or maybe the trees were the remnants of an old orchard. All he knew was that he wanted that fruit.
Mr. Longabardi, a 42-year-old public-school teacher from Roslyn, a village on Long Island, quickly exited the highway, approached the building closest to the trees and asked the guard there for permission to pick the apples. The guard consulted with a colleague, and they gave him the OK, with one caveat: that he leave some fruit for the birds.
Spotting and then foraging from straggling apple trees in Long Island and Queens is Mr. Longabardi’s passion, one he shares with his business partner, Benford Lepley, 32, who works as a photography retoucher and lives in Glen Cove. Together, they have picked apples near strip malls or abandoned monasteries, on small farms and in residential yards and, yes, by the side of the highway. Then they make wine and cider from the fruits of their travels in Mr. Longabardi’s garage in Roslyn.
Their small but prestigious label, Floral Terranes, which was introduced in 2017, has been featured on menus of high-profile New York City restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, at least one Momofuku location and Olmsted. Many of their ciders have stories. Ida, which they released last year, is made from apples that were tossed prematurely onto the ground after torrential rains and winds from Hurricane Ida hit the area. Banbury Farm Cider, which they released in 2018, is made with apples from an old farm that was part of the lab in Cold Spring Harbor known for its role in the discovery of DNA’s structure.
“Given the variety of their plots and the sensitive ways they handle the fruit, it allows for remarkable differences in the ciders,” Alice Feiring, a wine writer and the author of the new memoir, “To Fall in Love Drink This,” said of Floral Terrane and its approach. “It’s a way to explore the season and what happened during that season.”
Pascaline Lepeltier, an award-winning sommelier, agrees. “We live in this microclimate that is highly favorable for apple trees, and we should be using them to make delicious products,” she said. “Erik and Benford’s project is the best representation of this. When I serve their cider I can teach people how to be more aware and mindful as consumers.”
Floral Terranes has tree partners from Floral Park, Queens, all the way to Orient, on Long Island’s North Fork. But the owners are determined to find more. “There are a lot of trees we haven’t found yet and are keeping an open eye out for,” Mr. Lepley said. Both men carry handwritten letters, illustrated with apples, which explain their project; if they spot a tree on someone’s property they can leave a note in the mailbox. “I keep a notebook in the car and jot down where I see trees,” Mr. Lepley said.
The two owners met on Instagram, where they both posted regularly about making cider with foraged fruit. It was an instant connection. “I added Erik, and he was immediately like, ‘Come over today,’” Mr. Lepley recalled. “He made a fire pit, and we tried each other’s stuff.”
Mr. Longabardi, who was introduced to sustainable ingredients in the early days of the farm-to-fork movement in restaurants, soon became interested in pursuing local agriculture himself. “When I met Eric he was foraging and had a garden and was deeply involved in trying to get a local farmers’ market going in Roslyn,” said Ms. Feiring, the wine writer. “He was deeply attuned to what was growing in Long Island.”
Mr. Lepley learned about farming in northern Alabama, where he participated in a farm incubator program and co-founded a fermentation business after graduating from college.
He then moved to Wurtsboro, N.Y., where he worked for Aaron Burr Cider, a company that recreates cider made by early Americans, by way of traditional orchards and techniques. While he was there he experimented with using foraged apples to make cider.
“One of my earliest spots for picking apples was a schoolyard fence line,” he said. “Lots of interesting species grow on the edges of places, because birds sit on fences and poop out crab apple seeds and then new trees start to grow.”
By 2017, he had joined forces with Mr. Longabardi and his apple quest. The one rule they shared: Get permission before picking.
These conversations can sometimes lead to more opportunities. “Once we get permission it develops into a relationship,” Mr. Longabardi said, “and they are like, ‘Oh I was talking to my friend, and she also has an apple tree.’” Ms. Lepeltier, the sommelier, recently referred her friend, who didn’t know what to do with the apple trees in her yard, to Floral Terranes.
But the deal making can take perseverance that can be borderline obsessive. Last year, after spotting a few apple trees on a private estate, the two men left a letter in the mailbox but received no response. A few days later, Mr. Longabardi, on a probably not coincidental drive-by, saw the owner outside and talked to him. “He said he would get back to us but never did,” recalled Mr. Lepley, who approached the owner’s wife and daughter a few days later while they were in their driveway, unloading groceries.
“That moment kind of pushed my boundaries a little bit, like I was doing some friendly stalking,” Mr. Lepley said. “With this work you can feel exposed.” (The family eventually granted him permission to use the tree. “I was able to pick about 500 pounds of apples,” Mr. Lepley said.)
With others, it’s not nearly as hard. Many tree owners will either give away their apples or trade them for work or cider.
Pat Giancontieri, 70, a botanical artist, lives in a cottage that was the original gate lodge of an old estate in Oakdale. She has an apple tree in her front yard that is at least 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide. “I found a photograph of my house in Town & Country magazine from 1915 and the tree was in it, so we can prove it is at least 107 years old,” she said.
Before Mr. Longabardi approached her, she would occasionally eat the apples whole or make a pie. “But mostly we left them for the birds and squirrels,” she said.
Now Ms. Giancontieri is thrilled they are being put to use, she said. She is also getting her tree pruned at a minimal cost in exchange for the donated fruit. Jennifer Walden Weprin, the executive director of the Queens County Farm Museum, said no one was taking care of the property’s 25 apple trees before Floral Terranes came along. “With only 25 trees, it isn’t the bulk of what we do here,” she said. “I don’t know how they found us and our apples, but I’m glad they are interested in working with us.” In exchange for the fruit, Mr. Longabardi and Mr. Lepley are going to teach a few classes on cider making at the museum.
Glenn Aldridge, a caretaker of Restoration Farm in Old Bethpage, N.Y., said before Floral Terranes came along, no one had this level of expertise on Long Island apples, much less the 40 trees on the seven-acre property. “They are learning which trees are happy in our climate,” he said. “They are finding apple varieties that are happy and will produce, and that is good for all of Long Island.”
Mr. Lepley now has a nursery at his home where he clones some of the trees he’s found to be more durable, the ones that are still producing fruit on the side of loud, polluted highways or are thriving after floods and hurricanes. While he and Mr. Longabardi might not use the fruit from those trees, “we can propagate it and watch it grow in better conditions,” Mr. Lepley said. “Who knows? We might find that the premier cider-making fruit might be the ones that grow on a highway in Queens.”