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.



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



Pick of the summer fruit

For the best flavours of summer in Egypt,  you need look no further than fruit markets and street stalls in towns and villages up and down the country.

Until very recently in the country’s history, this would have been the season when everyone held their collective breath as the Nile floodwater crashed along the river valley from the south, bringing potentially fertile silt with it. Or not, as the case may have been. On the river’s gift depended the following year’s harvest…

It’s a different story now. The flood doesn’t happen in Egypt, owing to the dams upstream from Aswan, and the summer brings an abundance of fruit, from apricots and grapes to pomegranates and watermelons. For the pick of the fruit in August, let’s try mangoes and prickly pears.

The region east of Cairo, particularly around Ismailiya, is famous for mangoes – Mangifera indica. But you also find the trees in Cairo, even – surprisingly – growing in small gardens close to blocks of flats. Older varieties grow enormously tall and dense, and produce abundant fruit; recently, new cultivars such as “Keet” have been bred to remain small and compact, though they don’t crop as heavily.

Among Egypt’s most popular varieties, “Alphonse” have traditionally dominated the market, along with “Owais”. Popular as a simple fruit dessert, they are also whizzed up at roadside juice shops for passers-by to pick up on the run – though the juice is so dense it may be impossible to drink through a straw!


Mangoes   8.16Recently, my husband was given an incredibly generous present of mangoes from the countryside north-east of Cairo, following a visit to a clinic in Qalyubbiyah governorate. Wondrous colours and flavours – but I’m not sure of their identity!

Wherever you go in the height of August – in Cairo or by the seaside in Alexandria and along the north coast – you will certainly come across my second pick of the bunch: prickly pears.

Again, the Latin name indicates its origin: Opuntia ficus-indica. Known in Egypt as “teen shoky”, the fruit are a great snack in the heat of the day. Heaped up on carts or barrows that are wheeled around the streets, they are peeled to order on the spot by the fruit-sellers and handed over either on polystyrene trays or in plastic bags.

The nopales cactus which produces “teen shoky” is found right across the Mediterranean region, often growing in relatively inhospitable terrain, somewhat like the fig. But, aside from Mexico, perhaps, I am not aware of another country where it is so popular.Prickly pears   8.16

Peeling the fruit is done with care: every spine has to be removed with the peel, or it may spike the gums or stick in the throat.

Lastly: an unusual, yet refreshing, cup of tea, flavoured with the tender shoots of our lime trees. Following the advice of an Egyptian friend, I add the fragrant leaf buds to lightly brewed tea for a pick-me-up even on the hottest day. It’s best made with Earl Grey tea, so the lime complements the bergamot flavour – and it works wonders!

Fragrant tea   8.16