Empire of the herbs

I have been empire-building.

What started with a need to rehabilitate raised bed 2, and therefore move a rather lovely rosemary and a struggling sage, mutated over the winter into a case of near-herbal overreach.

After digging out the two plants with as near tender loving care as I could manage, in contrast to the usual approach among Egypt’s gardeners (i.e. smash and grab), I placed them in an ill-prepared spot in full sun at the side of the house. And waited.

Not content with the two plants, I removed a bit of lawn and added an oregano seedling and a touch of chives. And waited a bit more.

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Next came a small and straggly thyme from the raised bed dedicated to herbs (last photo above); I had thought it was a seedling, but, as I went to dig it out, found it was a layered branch of the mother plant. It didn’t seem to mind the dis/re-location.

You may wonder why the new bed. What’s so special about herbs that I’d risk another battle with rampant rosemary, woody sage infested with mealy bugs, leggy thyme and seedy oregano? Not to mention chives that develop the prettiest of flower heads and then seed themselves absolutely all over.

The answer is, I cherish them for their extraordinary qualities. Herbs fill in gaps in the lower hedge where other plants fear to root (rosemary, basil). They add interest to borders (basil, dill, fennel, dianthus). They give food for our bees and other pollinators (rosemary, lavender, thyme, borage). They are food for us too, whether in our cooking, our salads or our honey. Their flowers may be technically insignificant, but they range from pretty white (thyme) to unusual blue (borage) and stunning purple (lavender); and you have only to brush against the leaves on a hot day to release a whole cloud of amazing scent that rises on the currents of air, filling the atmosphere with the heady perfume of essential oils filled with beneficial compounds. What’s not to like?

So through the winter I have worked with the gardener to dig up turf – expertly turned with the fas or adze, a tool used since ancient times. It can be wielded with as much refined precision as brute strength, depending on the need of the moment. We expanded the bed outwards, and then found it taking on a life of its own as it crept northwards along the side of the house.

Out went the bees’ water jar, for the duration, and in went more plants: zaatar or Lebanese thyme, dianthus, a baby sage. I managed (somehow!) to leave space between them: Close planting has been a bit of a problem in other parts of the garden, and I’ve learned my lesson, I hope.

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I’ve struck a deal with the lavender. She stays in her pot so long as she is flowering, since to be full of blooms is a generous and unusual gesture among the lavenders I’ve grown in Egypt. I’ll only transplant her into the bed when she is ready. Nearby, there’s now another, smaller lavender (L. spica, grown from seed brought from Italy); fingers crossed that she will thrive. And a gift from nature, a self-seeded plant that may be a rock rose – I am not sure – undoubtedly the descendant of plants popped into the border last year.

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The bees have their water pot back in situ. This was timely: as the temperatures has risen recently, their need for water has become more urgent.

What is needed now is to add more variety to the existing space, rather than dig out more of the lawn. Attempts to grow melissa (lemon balm) have failed – sigh! I wish I could grow this lovely herb, “the elixir of life” according to Paracelsus, a wonderful aid to work on the anahata (heart) chakra. Hyssop also refused to germinate, and the Thai basil is shrivelling up in the sun. Worst of all, I forgot to make sure we have sweet basil, a terrible omission that must never be repeated: For now, we are senza basilico, the ultimate horror for a family of pasta-lovers!

 

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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