A sweet surprise

There’s a footnote to add to my recent posts on the raised beds… Not so long ago, I bemoaned the fact that we don’t have any sweet basil. This is an oversight on my part of unimaginable consequence: For us, as a family, to have to eat our pasta senza basilico is a most terrible deprivation. It feels like an absolute howler to offer anyone spaghetti, penne or fusilli without the addition of that most aromatic and beautiful of summer herbs straight from the beds outside.

Then: “Ecco!” As I removed some bedraggled chicory (Italian, as it happens!) there emerged a small, jewel-like plant, slightly nibbled by snails but nonetheless -incontrovertibly – a baby sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum.

Sweet basil 6.17I pressed a leaf gently between finger and thumb just to be sure – but the look of those lovely, slightly glossy and distinctively fresh, green leaves gave it away before I had smelled the oils.

I breathed a profound sigh of relief: We may yet be able to rescue our pasta dishes this summer.

What has happened with our basil plants is an interesting exercise in nature taking over. It’s not as if we don’t have the plants in the garden, most of them propagated from cuttings from one or two plants I bought at local nurseries. These are not O. basilicum in its sweet form, although they may be varieties of the species that I can’t identify. Some may be different species, possibly O. tenuiflorum, or holy basil, although I have my doubts about that.

In the raised beds, the basil should be the direct descendants of plants grown from seeds of sweet basil brought from the UK. But evidently all the plants – except for this one – have cross-bred. As a result, this year’s seedlings have lost the sweetness and emerged in much more pungent form, with a touch of anise. Not what we want on our pasta!

A similar thing has happened with our oregano (Origanum vulgare). It appears to have hybridised with locally-sourced  O. majorana, so the delicately flavoured herb I once had in RB4 has become O. x majoricum with a more strident taste.

All this variety in herbs makes for fascinating experimentation in the field, unscientific as it is (i.e. uncontrolled). It goes like this, kind of:

flowers + bees = new plant varieties, every season.

Meanwhile, my tastebuds are revelling in tulsi tea, made from the leaves of yet more basil plants. Very popular in India, where O. tenuiflorum/sanctum is called holy tulsi, this tea comes not from the raised beds but from the Pukka company, and is obtainable in London. As if to underline the astonishing variety in the basil world, the tea comprises Green Rama and purple Krishna tulsi, with a splash of lemon Vana tulsi, thereby also showing the illustrious nature of the herb in the Indian tradition. It’s a real tonic to the health.

For more on holy basil, see also:  Basil’s hidden secrets

Colorful: the Hellenic salad

Yesterday’s lunch, what might be called Hellenic salad, was a riff on a Greek salad, and a welcome reminder of a past holiday sailing among the Ionian islands: Every evening, we used to step ashore after mooring our boat and go for dinner in a local restaurant – a dinner that unfailingly consisted of Greek salad followed by grilled fish.

I built my salad up stage by stage starting with a base of leaves from the garden. Mixed lettuce and rocket half filled the bowl:
Hellenic salad 1
Next in, a scattering of chopped carrot (not usual in a Greek salad, I think) and cucumber sourced from one of Egypt’s major suppliers of “organic” veg via our local supermarket:
Hellenic salad 2
Then came green pepper and tomato, similarly sourced:
Hellenic salad 3
A further riff was added by the addition of sliced baby beetroot. Just harvested from raised bed 2, small and wonderfully sweet, they were too good to resist adding to the salad:
Hellenic salad 4
The crowning glory, of course, was Greek feta cheese, made from ewe’s and goat’s milk and bought at a great price from an upmarket deli in one of Heliopolis’s malls. Also, black olives from Egyptian company Wadi Food, based in the Delta between Cairo and Alexandria and purveyors of olive oil and olives, both organic and non-organic:
Hellenic salad 5
Lastly, I added a sprinkling of beautiful, fragrant oregano from the garden. Just a touch, as my plants are still young, but enough to give the whole dish an aroma of Ithaca and Cephalonia.

Of course, it would have been ideal to construct the whole salad from home-grown ingredients but, right now, I can’t produce enough of them – or, in some cases, any of them. So I have to mix and match between garden-sourced and shop-bought.

What this means, however, is that I know very little about where some of my food comes from. Nor do I know where it has been and how many processes it has been exposed to on the way to my kitchen.
Over Easter weekend, Britain’s “Financial Times” newspaper ran a major feature on food safety and fraud.* Unsettling and thought-provoking, it showed how we are going backwards to a time before public health legislation when fraudulent practices and adulteration of food were common.

Consultancy PwC estimates that the worldwide trade in food fraud is worth around $40 billion annually.

Oregano, it turns out, may be mixed with all sorts of leaves including olive, myrtle and hazelnut. Analysed by scientists at the Institute for Global Food Security in Belfast, 25% of samples from a wide range of retail outlets were found to be contaminated. In other cases, cumin is adulterated with ground peanut shells, with dire results for anyone with a peanut allergy. And in 2013 horse meat was traced in minced beef used in myriad dishes sold by apparently reputable food companies. Who knows how long that fraud had been going on for?
Fraudsters, outdated systems of control and inspection, and perhaps a degree of complacency on the part of government play a role. Equally alarming is the length of the chain between producer and consumer: there may be so many points at which contamination can occur, it is hard to know where to start.
Given that Egypt imports about 80% of its food commodities, according to a recent article in the “Egyptian Gazette”** quoting Trade and Industry Ministry figures, and given that farming practices in the country include the use of both hormones and large amounts of chemicals as fertilisers and as pesticides, there is a lot to be concerned about.
My Hellenic salad was colorful, hopefully nutritious too. Was it 100% beneficial? I wish I could be sure.

*The fight against food fraud by Natalie Whittle, FT 26/27 March 2016
** Inflationary pressures loom after pound devaluation by Ahmed Kamel, The Egyptian Gazette, 16 March 2016

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