A surprise in store

There are times when our plants cause me to do a double-take. This happened today.

I often take some steps back to view an area either from above, from a bedroom window or from the roof; or from a distance, as from the back doorstep looking over the raised beds. It helps to see the garden in perspective and to spot things I might not see from close up.

So I was astonished to find that our lime tree, seen from the vantage point of the back door, has a small crop of fruit on a section overhanging raised bed 1. As I always have my head down to work on the bed, I hadn’t actually noticed the fruit above.

The limes are beautiful: small, round and glowing a brilliant green on this most ungainly tree:

This is a curious development. I can’t remember when the young tree was planted as I didn’t keep an accurate record (doh!) Perhaps some six or seven years ago. Since then, it has produced no fruit, although there have been a few flowers in each of the past two or three springs.

A bit impatiently – after all, young trees need possibly five years to settle in and mature before they can be expected bear fruit – I resorted to blandishments. Why? I had read in Helena Attlee’s wonderful book The Land where Lemons Grow that it may work to lay the law down to citrus trees and show them who’s boss.

In an anecdote taken from the Book of Agriculture of Ibn al-Awam, a medieval Arab text of the almanac sort, she relates that if a citrus tree fails to bear fruit, then two workmen should approach it with an axe, and openly discuss in front of the tree how, if it does not produce a crop in the coming year, it will be cut down. “That generally did the trick,according to Ibn al-Awam”, she adds, “and he was obviously right.”

Attlee cites as modern-day evidence a heavily-laden mandarin tree growing on an estate in Liguria where this approach had been tried and had achieved dramatic results.

So I did the same with our lime tree in the spring. Tired of being jabbed by its horrendous thorns whenever I worked on RB1, and fed up with its straggly shape and blackened, unhealthy leaves, I told the tree in no uncertain terms that either it bore fruit this year – or else! I may even have given it a kick – the veggie’s version of the axe treatment.

Hey presto, or abracadabra, or whatever words you like, we now have limes.

And not just limes, either. Right now, our orange tree that turned out to be predominantly, but not exclusively, an “Italian” lemon (as the Egyptians call citrus trees bearing the big lemons, though none is native to Italy) with a feeble branch of orange grafted onto the rootstock has its usual wonderful crop of superb, juicy fruit in all sorts of colours from green to orange, though they are still lemons.

Some branches are so heavy with fruit that we are supporting them by arrangement with the guava tree nearby.

And the kumquat tree also promises another superb harvest:

Ahead lies a period of intensive marmalade-making, a laborious but rewarding process that will take me back to idyllic days in Sicily last autumn, when we visited organic citrus estates and tasted so many glorious, mouthwatering types of marmellata (bitter or Seville orange; blood orange; grapefruit; lemon).

I wish I could grow bergamot as well. Not that I have tried – I have never seen a tree in Egypt, and don’t know if it is ever grown here.

Finally, a wonderful fruit that developed slowly – oh so slowly – over the summer. Our one and only Keet mango:

Keet mango 9.17

There were three or four fruit on the tree; all but one failed. We waited months for it to ripen, finally enjoying our mouthwatering mini-mango-feast at the end of September. Worth the wait!

* The Land where Lemons Grow – Helena Attlee, pub. by Penguin Books. The best book on citrus fruit I know, and a wonderful tour of Italy from Liguria and Lake Garda to eastern Sicily.

 

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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

 

 

Surreal citrus

After a year of astonishing vigour in their growth, our trees have produced a bumper crop of lemons, kumquats and satsumas. Question is, what to do with them all?

The kumquats glow like little lanterns among dark green foliage, and our satsuma tree is so weighed down by fruit that I’ve rigged up a temporary support for the branches.

The lemons have been coming on-stream since September, so the season has been quite long. I’ve used them in baking, grated the peel, added the juice to quinoa, lentil and pasta dishes… Now, though, I have to start preserving them or the rest of the crop will go to waste.

Being organic, with no layers of preservative polish (described by Helena Attlee as a “stinking mixture of wax, fungicide and ammonia”*), the lemons last only a few days once picked. Any longer and they turn a surreal range of colours before dissolving: fun to deal with when I don’t get them to the compost boxes in time.

multicoloured-mould

So I’ve turned our kitchen into what the Italians refer to as a laboratorio. I came across this word for the first time in a coffee shop by Lake Garda last June. Along with tiny cups of espresso we tasted pieces of candied citrus peel dipped in dark chocolate – the perfect pick-me-up any time, anywhere. They were made, we heard, in the laboratorio next door.

For the past few days, I’ve been experimenting, trying to find ways to keep a hold of our glorious citrus, full of essential oil in the skins, bursting with flavour, cascades of pips and astonishing amounts of juice.

The marmalade-making is coming along, slowly. Delia Smith* has a point: arguably, marmalade is best made in small batches. In any case I don’t have a decent steel pan that can take more than about 3lbs of fruit, so production is slow and steady rather than spectacular. After hours of painstaking slicing and juicing, wrapping pips and innards in muslin, boiling and tasting – plus adding a heart-stopping amount of sugar – the end product is beautiful: fragrant slivers of lemon peel with a satisfying bite suspended in a delicate lemon-flavoured jelly.

I’m also trying my hand at preserving lemons, following a recipe by Sophie Grigson*. In Egypt we usually preserve small lemons, about the size of limes, rather than the “Italian” variety. The process is far from complicated, but this batch may be accident-prone: checking the level of brine solution in the sealed jar, I could hear gas escaping and see bubbles rising – so in the interests of avoiding an explosion down the line, I’ve covered the jar with a double layer of muslin and weighted it down.  I’m checking daily to see if there’s a new build-up.

Finally I squeezed more lemons and froze the juice in ice-trays, before popping the cubes into plastic bags in the freezer for future use. Meanwhile, the peel is in the process of being candied (requiring more mountains of sugar!) This is a nostalgic trip back to Christmases past when I would spend aeons helping my mother prepare cakes and puddings by cutting up gorgeous mounds of orange, lemon and lime peel – and sample them whenever I thought she wasn’t looking.

The process takes a few days and multiple boilings: Again, I’m in uncharted  waters here, disconcerted by widely different methods depending on which book I refer to. I’m going with an antiquated British government publication*. Fingers crossed!

<a href="https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/vigor/">Vigor</a>

* The Land where Lemons Grow – Helena Attlee – Penguin Books
* 100 Vegetarian Feasts – Sophie Grigson – My kitchen table
* Complete Cookery Course – Delia Smith – BBC Books
* Home Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables – MAFF/HMSO (neither of which exist by now, I think!)

Messing about with citrus

Our citrus trees are producing a bumper crop: or at least, some of them are.

You will probably know by now the story of our sweet orange tree that isn’t quite an orange, but predominantly a lemon. I’ve been writing about it for a while.

The first year it bore fruit, we had an orange. It took forever to swell and ripen, and I’d like to say it was worth the wait, but I think that might be an exaggeration. After that, we had one orange on the same part of the tree, and four lemons round the other side.

So we twigged that we had a tree composed of an orange scion grafted on to a rootstock of what is known in Egypt as an “Italian” lemon.

Last winter, I pruned the lemon stock (i.e. most of the tree) quite hard, opening out the centre to let in the light and air.

That caused the tree to take off as if there were no tomorrow, producing a wonderful head of new leaves, and a plentiful crop of lemons. But there are no oranges.

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Now the tree has taken an interesting new turn.  The thought occurs to me that we may have our own version of the Italian bizzarria, a citrus tree that mutates and evolves into something very different from where it started.

The lemons are still mostly green; those receiving plenty of sunlight are beginning to turn yellow. However, the odd one, found on one section of the tree, is turning – orange!  Seen below left, it is clearly more orange than yellow when compared to the lemon from another part of the tree, pictured right. Whatever its appearance, the juice confirms that it is definitely a lemon.

I have no idea why this has happened. Helena Attlee, in her study of citrus fruit in Italy*, provides an interesting insight:

“Sudden changes in temperature, periods of drought, unusually high rainfall or even wind could trigger mutation. This often affects only one or two branches of a tree, which flower at a slightly different time, produce fruit that matures at a different rate, or is even an entirely different shape and colour from the fruit on the rest of the tree.”

In fact, the winter 2015-16 was fairly tough, with a long spell of cold weather, although less rain and sleet than in 2013-14. Could this have triggered the change?

Perhaps the tree threw caution to the winds and produced a lemon with a twist; or perhaps it has arisen from the mixing of two distinct stocks; or even from a natural process of genetic diversification. I guess evolution didn’t stop when Charles Darwin “discovered” it, and there’s no reason to suppose that it isn’t continuing now, at this moment, in my garden – which is quite an exciting thought!

Meanwhile, the kumquat tree tends to support the theory of ever-changing nature. Whereas I made my first-ever batch of marmalade from the fruit in January, I already have a new crop ready to harvest this month. This is very early. As previously, there are in effect two crops on the tree: The second will probably be ready in about a month’s time.

Flowers are also appearing, suggesting a third crop is on the way.

Again, a mystery: some of the fruit are damaged, with a patch of peel  eaten away. This is puzzling, as citrus fruits are equipped with limonoids, natural insect repellents found in the skins. So perhaps the predator is a bird with a taste for bitter fruit, rather than an insect – a bulbul, maybe.

I foresee a period of marmalade madness. We have so many lemons, I can’t see any alternative destination for them other than the preserving pan. That will be another first. Then more  kumquats will need the same treatment. So I’ll be messing about with the citrus fruit until the New Year. Absolutely nothing to complain about, but the main challenge is to get my head round the task of accurately identifying the setting point. If any of you can advise me, I’d be so grateful!

 

* The Land Where Lemons Grow - Helena Attlee, published by Penguin Books