A mini vendange, and other fruit

We have just picked our first ever bunch of grapes!

It weighs in at just 100g, the fruit small but juicy and pleasantly sweet. Above all, they are our own produce, free from chemicals – nothing of any kind has been sprayed on/applied to them – ripened in the sun. Birds permitting, we may get some more, although none of the bunches left on the vine, which is climbing on the wooden frame over the garage, is as large as the first one.

The story of our fruit crop this year is one of “minor triumphs” with the notable exception of the lemon tree (another excellent harvest on the way) and the kumquat, where masses of blossom surround the few fruit remaining from last year:

I picked the first lemon yesterday. Admittedly they are far too small to be useful for juice, but I like to take the odd one when I need lemon rind in a recipe: I know the fruit are untreated and the peel is perfectly safe once rinsed.

As for the kumquats, it will be interesting to see what sort of crop we get this year after last year’s bounty. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have a rest from marmalade-making…

Just now, the yellow plums are ripening on the tree, and – assuming the birds leave them alone – we are back now to the “minor triumph” category. We’ve never had more than a couple from this tree (and none from the red plum), but this year we may get about a dozen. Soft and juicy, still warm from the sun, they are delicious.

We have counted four pears on one of our trees. It will be a while before they are ready to eat. The second tree, which I was attempting to espalier along the green fence, has been given her freedom and allowed to grow tall again: Let’s hope for some fruit from her next year.

Going down in terms of numbers, but up a good deal in size, there are two beautiful mangoes on the way:

The tree, var. Keet, is small and compact, nothing like the giants commonly planted incredibly close to blocks of flats all around Cairo.  Bought from an organic supplier at the Spring Flower Show a couple of years ago, and planted rather too close to the hedge, this is the first time the tree has produced fruit. We can’t wait: Mango, in so many different forms (a thick and luscious juice; cubed and eaten with ice-cream; sliced and used to decorate cakes; never, ever made into chutney) is the taste of summer in Egypt.

In fact, none of our fruit trees has been in longer than 5 years, so the crop we are likely to get this year is probably about what we should expect. There are no fruit on the satsuma tree (resting after last year’s superb effort) and none on the lime trees either.

Hopefully there will be another good crop from the date palm. You may recall that we had some wonderful red (Zaghloul) dates in 2016, and it looks as if this year will be good:

Early datesIt’s early days yet, however, and we are concerned about the number of dates that have already fallen to the ground while still small and green. It’s unclear what the loss signifies – unless it is related to the exceptionally hot weather over the last few days.

Also developing: the guavas.

Baby guavas

We had one excellent crop two years ago, after spraying with Malathion. Almost all were spoilt by fruit fly last year (no spraying). This year, we are trying fly-traps to protect the young fruit, but opinion is divided on their effectiveness. I shall be sorry if we don’t have any fruit but we can’t risk using chemical spray, for the sake of our bees.

Now for two complete surprises: a fig and a melon!

I had given up on the fig tree, and discovered the lone fruit by accident when pruning some basil nearby; the melon is on a ‘spare’ plant thrown into a pot of surplus tomato seedlings and left by the compost bins. The melon plants carefully transferred into the raised beds are producing…nothing!

Last word, however, has to go to the real stars of the Jasmine Garden: The bees, and yesterday’s harvest from the hives on the roof – gorgeous, golden, poly-floral honey:

Honey 6.17

 

 

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Turning the GM tide

Or: Just a few drops in the ocean…

The day I published my last post an email came into the inbox from Charles Dowding , the no-dig guru in Somerset, UK, (see: https://charlesdowding.co.uk) with an update on crops best started off in warm conditions “undercover” – on a windowsill, in a heated glasshouse or poly-tunnel at this time of year.

New sowings need warmth up to 25C/77F, if they are to “break their dormancy,” he writes.

So I guess the haphazard little hothouses I rigged up on the sunny top balcony are just the kind of thing our seeds need:

courgettes-under-cover-2-17

 

Here, I have used a plastic bag, cut open and spread out to cover several small pots. Also, an old mineral water container with the bottom cut out and the top left on (assuming I haven’t lost the lid!), which seems a much better use for it than throwing it in the rubbish bin.

In fact, I think water bottles are often re-used in Egypt, and I should add that we usually filter our domestic water rather than relying on the bottled stuff. Most of the latter is supplied by major multinationals such as Pepsi and Nestle – companies that must be laughing all the way to the bank at our expense. On principle, I prefer to avoid their products whenever I can.

I haven’t, however, followed Dowding’s advice on multi-sowing of seeds. Placing several seeds in one cell, module or pot is comforting for them, he suggests: They “enjoy each other’s company.” I’ve noticed it’s standard practice among farmers in Egypt, as my gardeners usually plant seeds and seedlings (courgettes, peppers, aubergines for example) in twos. Dowding suggests 4-5 beetroots and onions, 6-8 spring onions, 2-4 spinach, 3-4 radishes. This technique presumably helps solve the problem of erratic germination too.

As he says you can transplant them in clumps, I guess the practice is to thin them out as they grow taller, particularly important for root crops.

The pots in the picture above all contain courgettes or zucchini (one seed per pot, with three in the slightly bigger pot at the back). They are heritage Verde di Italia seeds. As you may recall, ever since I discovered that an Engineer/gardener last year planted seeds from the Monsanto-owned Seminis company I have taken care to keep more control of the seeds we use.

Reading more about the subject of GM foods, I was disturbed to find that, among veg, courgettes and squash are very likely to be GM varieties. Most to be avoided, owing to the ubiquity of GM seeds, are corn and sugar beet and their derivatives – which means an awful lot of processed foods are out of bounds. I am not suggesting that you mustn’t consume GM foods, but I have made the decision that I do not wish to. And I would like to have sufficient information about where our food comes from to be able to make informed decisions.

This, currently, is not the case in Egypt. Crops may be packaged as “organic” with a  whole array of certification stamps, and we have several companies that now market organic produce, but I don’t see any guarantee that they are not GM.

There is another, economic argument to be made: GM seeds are very costly. Not so the heritage varieties, assuming you save your own seeds.

Also on the balcony: several pots of babies from all around the garden. These are self-seeded little chaps, which I collect up every so often if I can think of a better place for them:

top-balcony-no-1-2-17

In the pots are (from left to right and from back to front): struggling convolvulus, planted from seed, that I neglected to water; nasturtiums extracted from a raised bed; aeonium rescued from a border after being knocked off the mother plant, probably by our dog; and marjoram or oregano found in another raised bed. The undercover pots are still to be planted, as I am warming the soil ahead of sowing tomatoes.

I have no idea if my tiny plot tucked away in an obscure corner of New Cairo can in any way turn the tide against GM. I doubt it. What will probably happen is a major disaster in the environment, to do with our precious pollinators, or affecting long-term damage to human health… by which time, the genie will be well and truly out of the bottle.

 

 

Nature’s bounty at noon

Or Nun, even… Today, I was back at the Farmer’s Market at Nun (pronounced “noon”) Centre on Zamalek, as the Saturday event has a wider range of stalls. This time around there was more produce; interesting fusion food; and a chance to recharge the energy channels with beautiful soaps, scrubs and oils – both massage and essential – from a company mysteriously called Black lotus.

First off, there was plenty of farm produce from organic and natural growers (generally certified compliant with a European standard), as well as from hydroponic farm Makar, certified by the USDA – though the status of hydroponics is not without controversy in the organic world. So the range of green leaves now included pak choi, chard, kale, baby spinach. Sprouting seeds were available, as were chicory, myriad herbs, and Egyptian molokhiyya, used to make a somewhat glutinous soup usually eaten laced with garlic as a side with rabbit or chicken, and rice.

It’s also great to see two companies selling eggs from humanely-reared and responsibly fed hens. One of the things that most bothers me about buying food in Egypt is how to be sure that the animal products are ethically produced and safe; now I have an answer. Tabia’y also rears chickens according to similar standards, I heard, and the company provides a delivery service.

Nawaya Egypt’s stall was a revelation, a fusion of Italian and Egyptian that is as intriguing as it is inspired, marketed under the brand name “Baladini” from balady (Egyptian for local or traditional) plus -ini, (small items, in Italian). On one side: packets of betaw, very thin crispbread, based on a traditional country recipe, with fennel or sesame seeds or paprika. On the other: packs of tagliatelle flavoured with beetroot, carrot or red pepper, bringing balady cereals and eggs together with unusual veg. to create a new kind of artisanal pasta in Egypt.

Assistants Ezra’a and Asma’ explained that wheat and other ingredients are grown organically on smallholdings near Saqqara, south-west of Cairo. The idea behind the betaw is to encourage healthier eating, especially among the young: The crispbreads make a great snack, far better than the all-pervasive “chipsies”. They are a bit like Doritos, they added.

Food straight from the home kitchen featured on Dina’s stall, laden with everything from kahk, pastries with a date filling laced with spices, to mana’eesh with zata’ar (tiny rounds of flat bread with a topping of fragrant lemony thyme, the species grown in Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon rather than on northern Mediterranean shores). There was further temptation from rolled vine leaves filled with rice, delicate pastries of chicken and spices, spinach samosas… I could go on (and on!) Marketed under the name Mutbakh Ommy, My mother’s kitchen, this is traditional Palestinian cooking done with flair and enterprise.

Finally, to revive and relax the body, a partnership trading as Black lotus, based in Zeitoun, Heliopolis, produces a whole range of essential oils, plus base oils from argan to wheat germ. Organic essentials such as pine and spruce are imported from the Baltic region; others are from further afield, while Egyptian products include citronella and lemon grass. No sign of lotus, or more accurately water lily, either blue or white, and certainly none that was black!

The company also markets natural soaps, with unusual combinations of materials and fragrances – I’m trying one with carrot juice, perfumed with lavender – and body scrubs, and shea and cocoa body butters. There’s even a natural spray to deter ants, laced with clove and peppermint essential oils. I’m trying that one out in my kitchen right now…

(No personal advantage is derived from writing this article and there is no commercial relationship between the writer and any of the businesses mentioned.)
Written for the Daily Prompt:

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Door-to-door organic

I’ve just taken a first delivery of organic fruit and veg from an almost-local farm – and I’m so excited! I know there’s nothing new about this for consumers in many countries across the world, but, for a consumer in Egypt, it’s brilliant news.

So: here’s to healthy eating!

The veg. are glorious: fresh, tasty and pleasingly irregular in size and shape, especially the carrots. I ordered mangoes too and have 3 supersize orange and red fruit weighing in at a kilo altogether.

Of course, food is frequently delivered to the door here: orders placed with the local supermarket or fishmonger or any one of a zillion fast food outlets are sent out quite efficiently. Motorcycles buzz continually around our town bringing meals or supplies to our neighbours, but it’s not a service I normally use.

What is truly wonderful is to have organic food delivered this way. Bear in mind that there are limited suppliers in Egypt, and it’s a trek to find them. So Desert Lake Farms (situated on reclaimed land off the Cairo-Alex road) is providing a welcome service – and doing it with style.

The eggs from organically fed , naturally raised hens (slogan: “Laid in Egypt”) are beautifully packaged in well-made cardboard boxes; but, apart from that, what I like about the company’s approach is that there is no packaging. The veg. and fruit are weighed and handed over loose in re-usable carrier bags, with the company’s branding prominently displayed and the main slogan “Grown with love in Egypt” also on show.

In another way, I breathed a sigh of relief at the delivery: I took what turned out to be a complicated trip by public transport downtown to the Zamalek district on Tuesday, to do some shopping at the twice-weekly Farmer’s Market at Nun Centre, a health, therapy and yoga centre. Situated in one of Cairo’s most attractive areas, blessed with leafy avenues, French and Italian architecture with touches of art deco, and riverside walks, it’s the ideal place for such a market.

In fact Tuesdays are mini-market days: Two companies only were selling their produce, El Kitchen garden (I think I would dispense with the “El”!) and, again, Desert Lake Farms.

It was an opportunity to stock up on wonderful fresh dates – woody red Zaghloul, dark, soft and sweet Amhaat and crunchy yellow Samani; El Kitchen garden also had salad leaves and celery, and a choice of onions, plus garlic.

I need to go back on Saturday when the full market is open. That means another struggle right across Cairo, by underground metro and taxi, with a long drive to get home at the end. For sure, it will be worth it…

There’s another important aspect to this, a campaign, encouraged by Egypt’s government, for home-produced goods to gain more traction in the economy.

So slogans such as “Grown with Love in Egypt” are right on-target; and there are quite a few companies out there, producing all sorts of items from foods to organic cotton baby clothes to body care products and essential oils. A well-established company called Nefertari has been producing the latter for years under the motto “Proudly Handmade in Egypt” and now has outlets across Cairo and in Alexandria.

So I’ll report back on the full Farmers’ Market after my next visit, with a better overview of the best of local produce, Cairo-style.

Hidden secrets… a gardener’s closet

Today’s WordPress prompt got me thinking… The prompts are cryptic, usually one-worders, thus offering infinite possibilities. But: closet?

Well, “closet” acted as a key, opening the door to a fundamental, deeply personal aspect of my gardening. Tools. Gloves. Hat. Netting, string and scissors. Books. A mask.

I’ve stacked them inside a new custom-built storage cupboard in a corner of my kitchen. This replaces a tacky plastic box and any number of smaller containers scattered here and there. Until last month, my gardening equipment was of no fixed abode.

And like all the best closets (cupboards in British English!), there is a skeleton rattling in there, right at the back.
Closet 1   4.16
The top section has a few basic gardening books, though not the ones I refer to most often. There’s a plastic box full of bits and pieces (string, wire, netting, seed drill markers etc); a wooden box for new/seldom used tools; secateurs, gloves, boxes and tins of seeds, a small electric hedge trimmer. I also have one face mask from B&Q in London, the last of a pack I bought to offer some protection when doing jobs like hedge trimming. You’d be amazed how laden with dust the hedge becomes in summer: cutting it is a truly awful job.

The lower part of the cupboard accommodates my precious Draper stainless steel spade and fork. Baptised in a garden of heavy clay soil in Britain, transported half way around the world to Egypt, I hide them away whenever the gardeners appear, being ridiculously possessive of my most treasured tools.

The equipment of choice in Egypt since time immemorial (literally – see the tomb paintings of ancient times) is a kind of ax known as a “fass”, usually translated as a “hoe” but unlike any hoe I’ve ever seen. It’s short, stubby, with a blade that is utterly lethal wielded anywhere near roots. But wielded with skill, as it usually is, the “fass” is remarkably versatile for digging, chopping, carrying, banking up soil – etc.

There’s another fork in the closet with its own curious history, much of which is a mystery. Picked up in a garden shop in Doha, Qatar, many years ago, it was already ancient, encrusted: a rarity in a place that dealt only in the shiny veneer of the new. My trusty friend laboured hard over the years and I couldn’t abandon it when we left the country, so it migrated with us, back to Egypt.
Closet
And the skeleton in the cupboard? Rattling away in the top section, back of lower shelf, there lurks a monster tin of courgette seeds from Monsanto. The plants are already producing in abundance. I am dismayed: far from being sweet and succulent, the courgettes are tasteless and dreary. In truth, I detect a touch of something bitter about them.

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Colorful: the Hellenic salad

Yesterday’s lunch, what might be called Hellenic salad, was a riff on a Greek salad, and a welcome reminder of a past holiday sailing among the Ionian islands: Every evening, we used to step ashore after mooring our boat and go for dinner in a local restaurant – a dinner that unfailingly consisted of Greek salad followed by grilled fish.

I built my salad up stage by stage starting with a base of leaves from the garden. Mixed lettuce and rocket half filled the bowl:
Hellenic salad 1
Next in, a scattering of chopped carrot (not usual in a Greek salad, I think) and cucumber sourced from one of Egypt’s major suppliers of “organic” veg via our local supermarket:
Hellenic salad 2
Then came green pepper and tomato, similarly sourced:
Hellenic salad 3
A further riff was added by the addition of sliced baby beetroot. Just harvested from raised bed 2, small and wonderfully sweet, they were too good to resist adding to the salad:
Hellenic salad 4
The crowning glory, of course, was Greek feta cheese, made from ewe’s and goat’s milk and bought at a great price from an upmarket deli in one of Heliopolis’s malls. Also, black olives from Egyptian company Wadi Food, based in the Delta between Cairo and Alexandria and purveyors of olive oil and olives, both organic and non-organic:
Hellenic salad 5
Lastly, I added a sprinkling of beautiful, fragrant oregano from the garden. Just a touch, as my plants are still young, but enough to give the whole dish an aroma of Ithaca and Cephalonia.

Of course, it would have been ideal to construct the whole salad from home-grown ingredients but, right now, I can’t produce enough of them – or, in some cases, any of them. So I have to mix and match between garden-sourced and shop-bought.

What this means, however, is that I know very little about where some of my food comes from. Nor do I know where it has been and how many processes it has been exposed to on the way to my kitchen.
Over Easter weekend, Britain’s “Financial Times” newspaper ran a major feature on food safety and fraud.* Unsettling and thought-provoking, it showed how we are going backwards to a time before public health legislation when fraudulent practices and adulteration of food were common.

Consultancy PwC estimates that the worldwide trade in food fraud is worth around $40 billion annually.

Oregano, it turns out, may be mixed with all sorts of leaves including olive, myrtle and hazelnut. Analysed by scientists at the Institute for Global Food Security in Belfast, 25% of samples from a wide range of retail outlets were found to be contaminated. In other cases, cumin is adulterated with ground peanut shells, with dire results for anyone with a peanut allergy. And in 2013 horse meat was traced in minced beef used in myriad dishes sold by apparently reputable food companies. Who knows how long that fraud had been going on for?
Fraudsters, outdated systems of control and inspection, and perhaps a degree of complacency on the part of government play a role. Equally alarming is the length of the chain between producer and consumer: there may be so many points at which contamination can occur, it is hard to know where to start.
Given that Egypt imports about 80% of its food commodities, according to a recent article in the “Egyptian Gazette”** quoting Trade and Industry Ministry figures, and given that farming practices in the country include the use of both hormones and large amounts of chemicals as fertilisers and as pesticides, there is a lot to be concerned about.
My Hellenic salad was colorful, hopefully nutritious too. Was it 100% beneficial? I wish I could be sure.

*The fight against food fraud by Natalie Whittle, FT 26/27 March 2016
** Inflationary pressures loom after pound devaluation by Ahmed Kamel, The Egyptian Gazette, 16 March 2016

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