I have just made a return visit to the village in Qalyubiyya, a Delta province to the north-east of Cairo. You may recall that we were last there in January: my husband is a visiting surgeon at the village medical centre, and I sometimes accompany him as I love to see how the countryside in Egypt works.
It isn’t far – maybe 40 km away – but the journey is quite challenging. Cairo’s outer suburbs have spread inexorably in recent decades, swallowing up once-prime agricultural land. As we traversed the district of El-Marg, we saw block after brick-built block of flats, with occasional stands of elegant palm trees stranded among them, and here and there a patch of still-cultivated land green with crops. I could only imagine how beautiful this now overburdened land must once have been.
But the return to the farm was a great pleasure. The main crop is fruit, especially plums, but this year started badly: three days of temperatures at or above 30C in February, followed by a cold snap and rain, caused most of the delicate flowers to fall and much of the crop was lost.
The red plums were sparse on the trees (I hope you can spot them in the photo!). The yellow plums had not fared much better:
The farm has three varieties of yellow plum tree: “sukari” or sweet; “yabani” or Japanese; and Santa Rosa, which, I was told, is of Spanish origin. There were more yellow than red plums in evidence.
The ideal temperature during the flowering season is between 22C and 28C. February’s unseasonal spike happened at the most critical time. Examining our own plum trees (one red, one yellow) we have spotted just one plum. Whether that’s a function of the youth of the trees or the weather, I don’t know, as ours flowered at least three weeks later than those on the farm.
Meanwhile, the farm’s early guavas were doing much better. We tasted them last time, and found them on the hard, green side. This time they were beautiful. Picked and eaten straight off the tree, warm from the afternoon sun, they brought back memories of the apples we used to help ourselves to as kids when playing in our garden in England.
I’m not sure if the boxful we were given to bring back to Cairo were from this farm or from the main farm further north, deeper in the countryside of the Delta.
The orchard contains a range of trees: mangoes, mulberry, banana, date palms, pomegranate, limes and bitter oranges (“ne-ring” in Egypt). “Ne-ring” blossom has the most glorious perfume; in the past, the farm owner explained, it was used in great quantity by a local factory to make expensive neroli essential oil. Nowadays, there are not so many trees and the blossom is used by the family to flavour drinking water and tea. I brought a few flowers home just to enjoy the aroma!
Ever hospitable and kind, the owner took me around and explained how the farm works, drawing water either from the Nile (more usually), or from underground sources. Among the trees, many are forty to fifty years old. Some need a little support!
Our way back to Cairo took us past field after field of cabbages, cos lettuce, onions, courgettes, tomatoes and wheat. The produce is obtainable in wholesale markets in the area, and we took advantage of the chance to stock up on garlic. I thought maybe a kilo or two; my husband bought ten, for a total of EG£25 (about GB£2). Local garlic currently sells in Carrefour for EG£3.75 a kilo, a tenth of the cost of imported Chinese bulbs.
Tied in bunches, the garlic bulbs are now hanging from a frame on our roof to complete the drying process.