For the best flavours of summer in Egypt, you need look no further than fruit markets and street stalls in towns and villages up and down the country.
Until very recently in the country’s history, this would have been the season when everyone held their collective breath as the Nile floodwater crashed along the river valley from the south, bringing potentially fertile silt with it. Or not, as the case may have been. On the river’s gift depended the following year’s harvest…
It’s a different story now. The flood doesn’t happen in Egypt, owing to the dams upstream from Aswan, and the summer brings an abundance of fruit, from apricots and grapes to pomegranates and watermelons. For the pick of the fruit in August, let’s try mangoes and prickly pears.
The region east of Cairo, particularly around Ismailiya, is famous for mangoes – Mangifera indica. But you also find the trees in Cairo, even – surprisingly – growing in small gardens close to blocks of flats. Older varieties grow enormously tall and dense, and produce abundant fruit; recently, new cultivars such as “Keet” have been bred to remain small and compact, though they don’t crop as heavily.
Among Egypt’s most popular varieties, “Alphonse” have traditionally dominated the market, along with “Owais”. Popular as a simple fruit dessert, they are also whizzed up at roadside juice shops for passers-by to pick up on the run – though the juice is so dense it may be impossible to drink through a straw!
Recently, my husband was given an incredibly generous present of mangoes from the countryside north-east of Cairo, following a visit to a clinic in Qalyubbiyah governorate. Wondrous colours and flavours – but I’m not sure of their identity!
Wherever you go in the height of August – in Cairo or by the seaside in Alexandria and along the north coast – you will certainly come across my second pick of the bunch: prickly pears.
Again, the Latin name indicates its origin: Opuntia ficus-indica. Known in Egypt as “teen shoky”, the fruit are a great snack in the heat of the day. Heaped up on carts or barrows that are wheeled around the streets, they are peeled to order on the spot by the fruit-sellers and handed over either on polystyrene trays or in plastic bags.
The nopales cactus which produces “teen shoky” is found right across the Mediterranean region, often growing in relatively inhospitable terrain, somewhat like the fig. But, aside from Mexico, perhaps, I am not aware of another country where it is so popular.
Peeling the fruit is done with care: every spine has to be removed with the peel, or it may spike the gums or stick in the throat.
Lastly: an unusual, yet refreshing, cup of tea, flavoured with the tender shoots of our lime trees. Following the advice of an Egyptian friend, I add the fragrant leaf buds to lightly brewed tea for a pick-me-up even on the hottest day. It’s best made with Earl Grey tea, so the lime complements the bergamot flavour – and it works wonders!