Pith and skin

It’s the season of pomegranates:

Now for a confession: these are not from our garden. How I wish they were! Nor are they organic and naturally grown; I ordered some from our organic supplier last week but none was in our basket, which probably means either the farm ran out that day or the fruit didn’t meet the standard required. So these are mainstream, and probably laced with chemicals.

But we do have a pomegranate tree. We bought it earlier this year from a nurseryman at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. It was beautiful, a fair size tree that took some manoeuvring into the back of our 4×4.

All was not as it seemed, however, and we should have been more careful. On closer inspection later on, we found the tree had evidently been taken out of its home bed and crammed unkindly into a pot that was far too small: a last-minute dash for the Flower Show, I suppose. Our gardener took a lot of trouble to cut the pot and loosen it around the root ball, without actually taking it away, so he could keep the roots intact as he lowered the tree into position in the ground.

Transplanting 2

Since then, I’d like to say the tree has gone from strength to strength. But that isn’t quite true. Pomegranates don’t like to be over-watered; but turning off the nearby irrigation spray has meant it hardly gets any, so we have to step in with hand-watering. In addition, the leaves have been attacked by pests (caterpillars? Grasshoppers/locusts?) Mainly, however, I think it is in shock from the transplanting process, and needs lots of TLC.

Still, the tree produced some lovely bright orange flowers in early summer and then a few baby pomegranates appeared on cue:

They then mostly dropped off. So we are left with… one!

Pomegranate in the bag 9.17This one is well and truly “in the bag”. Hoping to ward off the fruit flies which plague our guavas, get into the pears, and have even tried boring through the thick skin of our lemons (a step too far even for these pests, but they’ve given it a good shot), my husband covered our one remaining pomegranate with a plastic bag. This may be counter-productive: plastic is hardly an ideal environment for fruit and I doubt if it is helping the ripening process. Besides, the slit in the side, to prevent condensation from building, may do precisely what we don’t want – let the flies in.

You may wonder what’s so special about a fruit with a carapace-like outer casing, that is tart enough to make the eyes smart? All pith and skin, you might say – oh, and with seeds that wedge themselves into every available gap in the teeth.

I think the trees work better as ornamental additions to the garden rather than as sources of fruit. They were beautiful in Sicily both in the streets of Ortigia and, loaded with fruit, in the garden of Casa Cuseni, Taormina. They were also to be found ornamenting some lovely ceramics:

And while it’s one thing to battle your way through the skin, fiddle around with pulling away the pith, and then try to keep the seeds from skittering all over the kitchen as you extract them, it really is a delight to use the juicy little seeds for some adventures in Mediterranean cuisine.

I love them scattered across salads, best of all with sizzling halloumi cheese. Sweeter seeds can be added to summer fruit salads, with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream. Pomegranate juice isn’t my thing, but it is popular in Egypt. Meanwhile, in Iran, it is used in savoury dishes to add bite to a sauce: In her encyclopaedic Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden gives the recipe for Faisinjan, chicken or duck with a finely-tuned sauce that balances pomegranate and lemon juice with just enough sugar to take the edge off the tartness.

So we’ll wait to see what happens with our one remaining fruit. And if it fails, I have other ways to enjoy them: A favourite jacket, the work of an Indian designer, features a pattern of pomegranates… Pomegranates and textiles? Ah, that’s another story…

Pomegranate jacket

 

 

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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.

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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:

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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.