Marvellous moringa

A new herb has started to pop up in our supermarkets – at least, it’s new to me. I can’t think that I have ever seen it on the shelves before. From organic herbal tea bags by Sekem – “rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins necessary for the body” – to packets of fresh leaves from Ramsco – “best remedy for natural weight loss…. Tiny leaves. Enormous benefits” – moringa is being promoted for an astonishing range of benefits.

Moringa 1

So what is it, and where does it come from?

Moringa spp., family Moringaceae, appear in the RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs*. Endemic across a wide belt from Africa and Madagascar to Arabia and India, they tend to form dense trees of some size – M. oliefera may be up to 7m tall – with bipinnate leaves composed of many small leaflets, oval in shape and bright-to-dark-green in colour.

Moringa leaf Almost every part of the tree is useful, the leaves for infusions, as with the Sekem tea bags, and the roots for a condiment quite like horseradish (and this is one common name for the tree, by the way). Unripe pods and young leaves are eaten as vegetables in India, while the flowers are used to flavour curries.

The leaves are said to taste like mustard, but to my mind infusions made with the fresh leaves or using the bags were insipid. They could have been made with lettuce. Hmm.

But here’s an interesting story: The bark yields ben gum (thus another name, ben tree) and the seeds are the source of ben oil, widely used in foods, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics because it doesn’t go rancid. And – surprise! – the ancient Egyptians knew all about it.

According to Lisa Manniche in “An Ancient Egyptian Herbal”* M. pterygosperma is indigenous to the country. Maybe the Egyptians didn’t know, or need to know, about the business of weight loss, but they valued the oil and used it extensively. The New Kingdom tomb of a high official named Maya was found to contain ten jars of sweet moringa oil for his funeral procession. One had an inscription listing the contents as best quality moringa oil, gum and mandrake.**

In the ancient pharmacopoeia, the oil was a significant ingredient in medications, “either on its own or as a vehicle, frequently with honey, for remedies incorporating other ingredients,” Manniche adds. Mostly it helped to combat stomach ache or cramps; but it could be applied to aching teeth, or to a wound to stem the flow of blood.

So I imagine the ancient army marching with moringa in their first-aid pouches, rather as aloe was used by the Romans according to Dioscorides.

M. oliefera seems to have even wider medicinal potential from promoting lactation in nursing mothers to combatting TB and septicaemia to lowering lipid and glucose levels – thereby assisting in controlling diabetes and heart disease – to stabilising the fluctuations in mood and wellbeing of those prone to depression. Or so it is claimed.*

Coming back to the packet of leaves I found in our local supermarket, the label lists a number of nutritional benefits such as “7 times the vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the vitamin A of carrots, 4 times the calcium of milk” and more. Some websites go further: the leaves are rich in antioxidants and filled with protein. Clearly, moringa is a quiet and self-effacing wonder-tree, a rich resource to be tapped to help supplement diets at a time when there is considerable food-stress in many parts of the world – too many calories or two few calories, and sparse or inadequate nutrients either way.

And there’s one further thing: using a combination of a cloth and crushed seeds of moringa you can make a simple, effective and cheap filter to purify drinking water. Now, I wonder, did the ancient Egyptian army carry moringa seeds and lengths of linen cloth on campaign to keep the water supply safe? I’d love to know!

  • An Encyclopedia of Herbs, Royal Horticultural Society, pub. Dorling Kindersley
  • An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, Lisa Manniche, pub. AUC Press
  • ** Mandrake (Mandragora spp.) is another fascinating herb, much used in ancient Egypt, but risky as it is part of the Solanaceae family along with deadly nightshade etc. Known for its anaesthetic and antiseptic properties and as an aphrodisiac.
  • For websites with further info, especially about the health benefits of moringa, see:

https://miracletrees.org      https://mindbodygreen.com      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

 

Advertisements

Osiris rising

For millennia, July 19th was a magical moment in Egypt: the day when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose and the annual flood began, crashing through the cataracts above Aswan before making its way along the length of the country to the delta and the sea.

Along its route, a succession of Nilometers was constructed to measure the water each year, to estimate the agricultural harvest likely to follow and to assess taxes due.

So perhaps I should begin by wishing you a happy new year, ancient Egyptian style, as this day traditionally marked a new beginning for all tillers of the land.

What the Nile flood meant, in good years, was renewal with the deposit of a thick layer of fertile silt brought down from the highlands of what is now Ethiopia (80% of the Nile’s waters in Egypt are sourced from the Blue Nile, which rises there). It followed that, every year, farmers would sow their seeds in fresh soil – a soil so rich that the harvests were celebrated in detail over a period of literally thousands of years in carvings or frescoes on the walls of tombs and temples, decorative pavements, papyrus scrolls and artefacts.

I think the annual event was reflected in the Osiris myth, in which the murdered god was brought back to life by his sister-wife Isis. The story, commemorated in annual festivals, also appeared in certain funerary rituals such as the sowing of wheat seeds in a mould shaped to resemble Osiris’ form, their germination representing the principle of regeneration. You can see these in the National Museum in Cairo, part of the extraordinary haul of treasures found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

So at this moment in mid-July, I pause for a while to reconnect with the country’s ancient past, and to remember that the Nile, for all that she has been tamed by barrages and controlled by dams, is still an awe-inspiring presence in the land.

On Kasr El-Nil Bridge

There was another aspect to the river, besides the theme of annual renewal, of course: the floods were unpredictable.

Perhaps we think more usually of their failure. Insufficient water at this time of year meant low levels in the irrigation canals that criss-crossed the land, and a scant supply to support the sowings in September-October and then again in the spring. With this came famine.

Other years, the waters came down with extraordinary force. Recently, I have been reading the letters of Lucie Duff Gordon, written in the 1860s during an extended stay in Luxor (Upper Egypt), where it was hoped the dry climate would help her recover from tuberculosis. What devastated the countryside then was not drought, but flooding: the Nile overran its banks, destroying villages, ruining cotton and food crops alike, bringing disease that killed most of the cattle, and leaving the villagers destitute.

It is a sobering and moving account written by an intelligent and sensitive witness. Lady Duff Gordon did not hold herself aloof from the villagers, but participated fully in their daily lives, from sharing picnics by the threshing floor to taking coffee and hubble-bubbles with the menfolk. Her observations of the tribulations of the farmers are remarkably perceptive and interspersed with horror at the indifference of both the Khedivial administration and the boatloads of tourists who passed by and looked the other way.

Nowadays, we may feel somewhat removed from such vulnerability to nature’s forces, but we forget her power at our peril. The soil in my garden is, in part, a gift of the Nile: Simply put, I am its trustee for a while, before moving on.

Letters from Egypt – Lucie Duff Gordon, pub. by Virago Travellers. See also Katherine Frank’s biography of her: Lucie Duff Gordon – a Passage to Egypt.

<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/soil/”>Soil</a&gt;

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

 

 

The aura of trees

Every living being has its own aura, or energy field. Working this month on my chakras (energy centres, with their related channels up and down the body, the nadis) I am not surprised to read that we can learn to see auras. What really interests me is that it’s possible to develop the power by practising with trees.*

A huge and ancient tree may have a vast energy field – a kind of glow all around it that throws the plant’s shape into subtle silhouette. By training the eye on the tree and then moving our focus to the sky beyond, we can actually see the light energy as the particles vibrate on different frequencies, producing a swirling pattern of colours around its form.

I have always felt a profound connection with these wonders of nature. I rather think they are the true “wonders of the world”, far superior to the man-made monuments that have all disappeared, with the exception of Egypt’s Giza pyramids. As a child, I observed and drew them with passion; climbed in them; picnicked beneath them with the teddy bears; ate their fruit; collected their seed pods; composted their leaves and peelings. I helped my mother plant and tend an english oak, with the express wish to leave it for future generations (and scant regard for how big it was likely to grow in an urban back garden!)

Much seasonal colour and fragrance in Egypt is provided by trees, whose varied shapes and spectacular blooms are part of the landscape in countryside and town alike. Far more of them grace the streets of Cairo than you might imagine: Somehow amid the traffic and pollution, they hold fast, providing rest for the eyes and oxygen for the lungs by day.
Jacaranda 4.17

From Bombax malabaricum and Chorysia speciosa in March, through Jacaranda mimosifolia (above) in April and Delonix regia – the flame tree – in May right through to the gorgeous frangipani (Plumeria acuminata) whose waxy white and yellow flowers perfume our summer days, trees are integral to life in Cairo.

Right now, the flame trees predominate:

We can’t fit many of the big ones inside our garden. But we have set aside a fair amount of space for fruit trees, and the newest addition to the collection, the delightful pomegranate (Punica granatum) has just begun to flower:
Pomegranate flowers

Nearby, our lovely Calliandra haematocephala (the “powderpuff” tree – there’s a name to conjure with!) is flowering profusely. She arches over the grass, repeatedly flowering throughout the warm months; full of vitality, Calliandra is a great favourite with the bees just now.

I think the energy of trees works on many different levels; every part of them is filled with fascination for me, from the bark and the roots to the extraordinary variation in seed distribution. What we have around us in Cairo is just a snapshot of their vast wealth – and it never, never ceases to fill me with wonder.

* The Chakra Bible – Patricia Mercier, pub. by Godsfield Press, part of Octopus Publishing

Fields of surprises

Our journeys into Fayyum have been full of fascination: Beautiful countryside, occasionally with gentle hills, and wide open vistas across the fields; a protected area, with lakes and waterfalls; myriad birds, both resident and migratory, from hunter-diver kingfishers to bee-eaters wheeling and calling overhead; and, all around us, a sense of man’s presence since ancient times.

I love the farms and fields. There is such precision and familiarity about the wheat crop standing tall, now ripening fast to a lovely golden hue as harvest-time approaches. Precision because the cereals are sown in strictly-defined plots within the fields; familiarity because you see exactly the same scene in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings of paradise in the world beyond this, though the cereals would have been emmer wheat and barley.

Paradise, for an ancient Egyptian ruler or notable, was portrayed as a well-ordered and productive land of bountiful harvests, with crops ready for gathering, animals well-fed and fattened, and an estate manager keeping a careful eye on the farm workers – no chance of slacking, even in the next world.

Back to the present, and everywhere piles of harvested “berseem” (clover) are in process of being transported from field to animal pen as fodder for buffaloes, cattle, horses and donkeys. Bare plots are rapidly ploughed and replanted, and summer crops are already appearing: corn, for example.

Close to Lake Qarun, we are stopped in our tracks by a new discovery: The earth is ablaze with gorgeous marigolds (Calendula officinalis) in bloom; nearby, the air is suffused with the scent of flowering chamomile – most likely German chamomile or Matricaria recutita. I have never seen the herbs growing in the field in Egypt. Both contain valuable substances used in formulating natural remedies, especially C. officinalis; and I buy dried chamomile for infusions from a local health store.

This year, I have had some success with German chamomile planted in raised bed 2 – see the little picture above, lower right. I’m growing it on a very small scale, but it is now flowering and, according to my wonderful RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs*, I need to get harvesting the fresh young flowers for use in infusions or to freeze for later on. It can be dried, but the volatile oils will evaporate rapidly.

A little beyond these fields, we find yet another herb. At first glance, it looks like Queen Anne’s lace (Ammi majus), a common hedgerow plant in the English countryside when I was a child; but, on closer inspection, it is somewhat different. As we ask the farmers about it, one of them tells us it is “khella”, and it is used medicinally to treat kidney problems.

A little research in the Encyclopedia identifies it as Ammi visnaga, part of the Apiaceae family, related to carrots (Daucus carota) and ajowan or Trachyspermum ammi:

This is a plant with an amazing history in Egypt: mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, a medical text dating from the New Kingdom some 3,500 years ago, it was used to relieve fever and for the treatment of kidney stones. It is known to be a valuable vascular dilator that does not lower blood pressure – hence its continuing use today.

In the 1950s, investigation of the oil in its seeds identified a substance (khellin) that has proved effective in relieving the symptoms of asthma.

I read that the seeds are also added to “mesh”,  a white cheese with a story of its own. Described by Magda Mehdawy and Amr Hussein in their book on ancient Egyptian food* as “aged cheese”, it was – and perhaps still is – left to mature in clay pots for at least a year. Maybe this is the white cheese I have seen in the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara – food for a snack made some 4,500 years ago, which puts a whole new light on the term “aged”! Frustratingly, when I investigate the list of ingredients on a jar of the stuff in a local supermarket, I find no mention of “khella”. Clearly, it may have changed somewhat…

*Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Herbs, Deni Bown, pub. by Dorling Kindersley, London 

* The Pharaoh’s Kitchen, Magda Mehdawy and Amr Hussein, pub. by AUC Press, Cairo

Of Sappho and Dionysos

The past few days, I have stepped into a most beautiful, magical part of Egypt: A haven that is surprisingly close to Cairo.

I say “surprisingly” because Cairo is, after all, a C21 mega-city: from Memphis and Ono (Heliopolis) to Maadi and New Cairo, and from pyramids to “Intelligent Village”, it has, so-to-speak, seen it all.

But then there is Fayyum: An astonishing oasis of greenery close to a natural lake southwest of the capital, intensively cultivated since ancient times, site of a National Park, and situated on one of the world’s major migratory routes for birds.

Fayyum farms

Steeped in history – and the subject of a play I attended at a tiny theatre in London last January – Fayyum was the playground of Middle Kingdom rulers and their families some 4,000 years ago before Macedonian soldiers settled down to cultivate the land after Alexander’s conquest, and the Romans arrived with their obsessive planting of wheat, their ruinous taxes, and, of course, their baths.

Lunch on Friday was at Dionysias in the shadow of a Ptolemaic temple: bread, cheese, dates, water. The sort of rations a simple soldier might once have enjoyed – but where was the wine? It was missing, and the god for whom the town was once named may not have been pleased.

Dionysias

Fayyum is not an oasis proper as it is supplied by a branch of the Nile, the Bahr Yusef. The water supply has been regulated for millennia and a network of canals and irrigation ditches now criss-crosses the land bringing cultivation to a wide area, much of it some 40m below sea level. Under the pharaohs, the lake was named Mer-Wer, or the Great Lake, an ideal spot to hunt waterfowl and enjoy the breezes. More recently, King Farouk continued the tradition from a hunting lodge on the southern shore.

The agricultural wealth of the land is astonishing. I imagine this is partly owing to the Nile, but also to the fact that in prehistoric times the area was an inland sea. Later, it became a freshwater lake. Over time, deposits of marine flora and fauna would have accumulated, creating fertile land once the water receded or was drained, much like the Borghese garden and estate we visited in Sicily last October: (see In Persephone’s gardens)

But the accumulation of “waste” material takes on a whole new dimension in Fayyum. Most fascinatingly, it provides insight into Greek Egypt, for which there is perhaps less material evidence than for other epochs of the country’s ancient history, although the underwater exploration of sites near the great Ptolemaic capital Alexandria has begun to set this right.

For who knows how long, local farmers mined ancient waste tips in Fayyum for materials to use as fertiliser: Nothing like well-rotted compost to get the pomegranates to bear fruit and the wheat ears to fill out! When British archaeologists explored the tips from the late C19, they found discarded papyri among the debris (sabkha) … fragments of geometry by Euclid, of plays by Menander and Sophocles… and poetry of Sappho.

The sabakheen were recycling Sappho to fertilise their crops!

The obsessive rifling of rubbish tips by archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt is the subject of Tony Harrison’s play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, first performed at Delphi in Greece in 1988 and recently revived at London’s Finborough Theatre. It’s a clever, witty yet tough play in which Grenfell turns into the god Apollo and Hunt into the leader of the satyrs, the agonised search in Fayyum for fragments of literary value frustrated by wills, bills and condemnations to exile that overwhelm the rare scraps of poetry.

Meanwhile, the University of Oxford is leading a project to assemble, translate and interpret the fragments of ancient Greek, Latin and, from more recent times, Christian, manuscripts that were discarded among the Fayyum waste. Many of Sappho’s poems, tantalisingly reduced to mere wisps of words, are from the stash of “Papyri Oxyrhyncus”:

Earth is embroidered

with rainbow-coloured garlands…

…Nightingale with your lovely voice

you are the herald of spring…

…Flaming summer

charms the earth with its own fluting,

and under leaves

the cicada scrapes its tiny wings together

and incessantly

pours out full shrill song.

[From: Ancient Greek Lyrics, translated by Willis Barnstone, pub. Indiana University Press]

More from Fayyum in my next post: travelling through farmland and discovering fields of medicinal herbs, including one I had never heard of (Ammi visnaga), cultivated since ancient times and used in “mish”, Egypt’s favourite pickled cheese!

Sheer indulgence

We came back from downtown Cairo last week not with a few books from my favourite store, nor stocks of organic food from the bio-shop, nor even gifts of locally made soaps, skin creams and cotton towels for family and friends overseas.

Rather, we had a boot full of plants, a bag of pepper and aubergine seedlings, and a pomegranate tree stretching almost from boot to windscreen. It was rather fun turning corners, negotiating roundabouts and getting through traffic on the flyover all the while holding on to the tree with love, trying to keep her steady.

The pomegranate is one of my favourite trees, not only for the bright green softness of the young leaves, nor the slightly whimsical form of the branches. I love them also for their luminous orange flowers, and for the strange beauty of the fruit.

We had spent a productive morning at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. Armed with a list of items we needed, we were remarkably successful in tracking them all down, from traps to deal with fruit fly (to protect our guava crop) to bedding plants as gifts for relatives.

But there’s much more to the event than this. It’s sheer indulgence to take the time to wander round and enjoy the show, set in the once glorious – though now somewhat faded – former royal gardens in El-Urman Park, among splendid palms and a fascinating collection of conifers from around the world.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Businesses represented were mostly from Cairo and the surrounding countryside. The breadth of items, covering everything from gardening equipment to seedlings, beekeeping paraphernalia to irrigation materials, was impressive and useful; normally we would have to travel all over to track them down.

Among the herbs were quantities of rosemary, thyme and oregano, but the selection was less extensive than last year. Seedlings, purchased by the plug, included aubergines, cabbages, capsicums, lettuces and tomatoes. I’m always interested in the packets of seeds: We usually buy basic seeds – coriander, dill, parsley, rocket – from a kind of general store or grocer’s shop, but more specialised seeds are harder to find. At the show, they come either commercially packaged or sorted into simple brown paper packets with handwritten labels:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There were not so many fruit trees this year, as far as I could tell, but still there was a reasonable selection of citrus, mango, apple, peach, pear and so on. You can see bananas (which are not trees, but grasses) in the foreground here:

Fruit trees

But you have to be vigilant when you buy: Our pomegranate, lovely as she is, turned out to have been recently uprooted and placed in a suspiciously small container. At least it wasn’t an old tin formerly used for industrial glue or paint, which is common practice in Egypt! But this meant that the gardener had to be extra careful in easing her out of the pot and into the garden: More on this in a later post, as well as on the amazing cultural, historical and culinary story of the pomegranate tree.