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Posts from the ‘Food safety’ Category

A Farm Idyll

We are just back from a day out visiting a farm producing organic fruit and veg. and eggs from free range hens.  A day of long walks among greenery as far as the eye could see, fresh air, freedom for city kids – and their parents – and a rare chance, in Egypt, to learn more about how our food is produced.

The welcome at Sara’s Organic Food (farm) was as warm as it was hospitable, and there had clearly been careful planning to make the Open Day a success. But what struck me most of all was how orderly and clean it was, truly a haven for visitors.

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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



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: 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:



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:


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.