Winter winds, winter warmers

It’s blowing quite a gale today, the wind whistling around our house and in through any ill-fitting windows and gaps beneath doors (of which there are a few…) Winter has arrived. Though the days are usually fairly sunny and bright with temperatures up to 20C, the warmth evaporates at night leaving us shivering in a stone-floored house.

We could run the a/cs, adjusting them to warm rather than cool – but that seems like chickening out. So we wrap up well, get out the rugs and blankets, and eat the warming foods of winter – billeela, spiced hoummus, shorba’t a’ats (lentil soup), warm karkadey*.

In the garden, we have done a lot of work to clear borders and collect leaves destined, for the most part, for the compost bins. Fruit trees are being pruned, notably the pears, satsuma, limes. The lemon will be pruned once we’ve taken all the fruit; the plum trees will be cut back later on.

gardening-info

Whether this is right, according to Egyptian farmers’ practice, I am not quite sure, as my basic guide has always been the Royal Horticultural Society’s text “Vegetable & Fruit Gardening” and that, naturally, is intended for use in the UK. I also have a “Monthly Diary” for the care of fruit crops from Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, and that’s quite helpful, provided my husband helps me out with the Arabic.

I love these books: the photos on the front are so enticing, I only wonder why my produce rarely looks anything like the images they present. Velvet peaches, perfectly shaped bananas, crowds of potatoes, or pears, or grapes – and not a bug in sight. I take refuge in the thought that they can’t possibly be organic: they are too spectacular to be true!

Today’s job for the gardening assistant was to clear leaves from the lawn and then spread compost over the grass. We have some fun before and after pictures:

You may notice the change in the weather from the moment when the leaves had been collected to the point when the compost was applied. Such a change is typical of this time of year in Egypt. It’s confusing for the gardener: you start off in shirt and jumper, maybe overheating in the sun, then run to add jacket, scarf and even a woolly hat while being blown around by the wind.

My chat with the gardener confirmed that, as the Ministry’s diary indicates, farmers don’t apply manure just now (we are now entering the agricultural month of Tuba, by the way). So we’ll keep the sacks of fertiliser, which were delivered along with the compost, until early February (Amsheer) when the muck is usually spread – but, I read, not around the pear trees. There’s magic in this system, I guess, referencing long-established practice by farmers over the millennia.

At least it gives me time to get to grips with pruning the big lemon tree. That means confronting its terrible thorns – it’s a job I dread.

  • Billeela: A sweet winter classic, made using wheat grains boiled for a while in water, then drained, and cooked in milk until soft. Add sugar to taste before serving, and your choice of cinnamon, sultanas, dessicated coconut and chopped nuts. I like to roast the nuts and coconut lightly.
  • Spiced hoummus: A favourite in our family. Prepare the chick peas by soaking overnight and then cooking in fresh water until beginning to soften. Drain. In a separate pan, gently soften grated ginger, add ground coriander, turmeric, cumin and chilli powder (also to taste), then add the chick peas and mix well. Cover generously with water, some chopped tomatoes or tomato puree and continue to cook until the chick peas are soft and have absorbed the spices. (I also add some chopped celery, carrot and onion, but this is unusual). Ensure there is still plenty of liquid with the chick peas, and serve in mugs or bowls with lots of fresh lemon juice.
  • Lentil soup: Needs no explanation! The preferred preparation in the Middle East is with lots of ground cumin and coriander; again, best served with lemon.
  • Warm karkaday: Made from the sepals of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a plant grown particularly in Upper Egypt. See also Snacking on hibiscus In winter this sweet drink can be served warm rather than on ice as in hot weather.
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