Gezira’t Zamalek, an island in the Nile at the heart of Cairo, is one of the city’s more beautiful neighbourhoods. Here you walk along streets lined with long-established trees and well-proportioned blocks of flats in the French and Italian style, passing by numerous parks and gardens; here also you find the Cairo Opera House, art galleries, embassies and cultural centres, and floating restaurants by the river bank. It’s very different from the hard scrabble areas just across the river – a world removed, you might think.
It’s also home to a weekly farmers’ market hosted by the cutting edge Nun Center, a community centre for yoga and alternative therapies.
This is, to say the least, unusual in Egypt. Not that there aren’t many and varied open-air markets: in fact, informal gatherings of stalls have sprung up all over the place recently, selling everything from fruit and vegetables to gaudy clothing and school supplies. It’s one creative solution to Egyptians’ pressing need to make a living somehow, somewhere – and a sure way to snarl the traffic more than ever.
But Nun Center’s market is different. For a start, it’s a small-scale enterprise in the garden of their villa. The stall-holders are mostly, but not exclusively, artisanal producers of vegetables, breads and home baking, flowers, olive oil, and cosmetic items (oils, soaps). There is emphasis on locally sourced materials, often organic and ethically produced. That said, some are clearly more commercially oriented than others, and labelling and certification are uneven; but the basic principles of cultivation and production in harmony with nature, with an emphasis on fresh and simple, are at the core of the market’s philosophy.
There is a Thai family business, based at a small-holding in Dahshur (beyond Saqqara, and the site of the early 4th Dynasty “experimental” pyramids of King Sneferu). And the produce? Ingredients you need for Thai cuisine, including kaffir lime leaves, varieties of Zingiber (ginger), lemon grass, chillies. Plus other veg, some more usual than others:
Hydroponics businesses – up a notch in scale and commercial orientation – bring veg rarely seen in Egypt, such as kale and pak choi. Plus varieties of lettuces and herbs that add novelty and a fresher taste to our food. One such enterprise also farms fish. Notably, this is the first time I have heard any agricultural engineer in Egypt wax lyrical about efficient water use. I have it on good authority that the “bolti” or tilapia tastes like no other such fish on the market!
The French baker of artisanal breads adds olives, or walnuts and pumpkin seeds to her loaves. Her Egyptian counterpart, meanwhile, produces a range of flat breads including the traditional “fateer m’shaltet” a kind of flaky pastry loaded with “samna” (ghee) and usually eaten with – wait for it! – honey and cream. Other French country produce includes pork “rillettes”, a kind of potted meat, and comfort soup, jams and so on.
Some stallholders come from afar. Take the “Backgammon Girls”, an enterprising American/Egyptian duo now based in Morocco. Their product, argan oil, is made from seed kernels of the argan tree (Argania spinosa) endemic to Morocco, extracted using traditional grindstones in a women’s co-operative there. The packaging adds a touch of charm and a local feel to the product – although there’s no labelling!
Somewhat expensive, yet rich and nourishing, the oil is increasingly sought-after for skin products in the west*.
Another cosmetics stall has a range of oils, some perfumed with lavender and others with lemon grass, plus propolis, cinnamon and mint soaps: not so unusual in Egypt, as there are large-scale companies already producing in this field, but still adding an irresistibly exotic flavour to this corner of Zamalek.
*1. For those readers who can’t take a trip to Morocco or Egypt to buy their argan oil, it is obtainable in the UK from Neal’s Yard and extensively in the US.