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.

 

 

The healing garden – in Egypt’s earliest monasteries

Assailed by the crowds, traffic, fumes and every-man-for-himself scramble of Cairo, it’s easy for the individual to lose sight of anything but the concern of the moment: how to cross the road (if at all!), how on earth to manage the school run or get to work on time – and so on, and on. In hard-scrabble neighbourhoods, with broken infrastructure and severe pressure on housing, the situation is even tougher.

Hardest of all, to my way of thinking, is the noise. There are few places where you can get away from it. Noise pervades every neighbourhood, it rises to a crescendo at peak work and travel hours, and it frequently carries on all through the night, for Cairo is a city where someone, somewhere is always awake, and Egyptians, as a rule, don’t do anything quietly.

But there are sanctuaries in Egypt that remind you, the moment you step through the gateway, of eternal values – those that we lose touch with at our peril. Places of space, simplicity and silence where everyday concerns are left behind and calm returns to the mind.
S Antony street crop
And in a rocky and sun-baked landscape only occasionally relieved by vegetation – particularly after winter rains – these monasteries are truly shelters where the productive garden plays a central role and plants have an immediately calming, healing effect.
S Antony general
The oldest monasteries in Egypt, S. Antony and S. Paul, date back to the mid-C4 and are sited near the modern Red Sea settlement of Zafaraana. Here you sense a link with Christianity’s earliest period, for they are places of withdrawal, prayer and study, where monks also actively serve the community in a number of ways from providing work to running clinics, and receive visitors in large numbers in these days before Easter.

The monastery of S.Antony is named for one of Egypt’s earliest hermits. In the late C3 the 18-year old Coptic Christian, Antony, traumatized by the death of his parents, withdrew from society to live in the deserted tombs and fortresses of the Nile valley. Much later, in his fifties, he moved to a cave above the site where the monastery was subsequently founded. Paradoxically, this was to escape from the crowds of followers who wanted to join him in the solitary life. You can still visit the cave if you care to climb several hundred stairs to reach it, passing on the way the lonely abode of a latter-day anchorite from Australia.

Some kilometres to the south, S. Paul’s commemorates the life of Paul of Alexandria, a follower of Antony.

Positioned at the foot of a steep escarpment and protected by high walls, S. Antony’s benefits from a natural spring that yields 100 cu.m. of water daily. A small basin in a courtyard allows you to try it – cool, fresh and flavoured by naturally occurring mineral salts, it’s the best thing on a hot summer’s day!

Here within the walls are gardens filled with fruit, vegetable and herb crops.
S Antony
S. Antony’s has abundant date palms and olive trees, and extensive climbing vines; recently, at S. Paul’s we also found pomegranate trees, and a mulberry in fruit:
S Paul mulberry
The gardens of the two monasteries, although organized along different lines, yield onions, lettuces, rocket, herbs and, to judge from recently planted seedlings, melons. We found labourers from the countryside (“fellaheen”) tending the crops at S. Paul’s, the small beds neatly divided up and edged with stones, with pottery water jars placed here and there among the greenery.
S Paul palm crop
In this day and age, the communities are not self-sufficient in food, and supplies are regularly brought in by road. But there must have been many times when self-sufficiency was important, given the isolation of the sites and the – at times – insecure conditions in the surrounding desert. Our guide, Father Ruwais, noted that S. Antony’s did not have a gateway until around 80 years ago; so, for 1600 years, anyone wishing to enter or leave the monastery had to be winched up through a trapdoor high in the wall.

Fortunately, we were free to walk in and out via the gateway, without let or hindrance. And our kind host sent me away with a freshly made fried aubergine sandwich: it was absolutely delicious, though whether the bread was the product of the monastery’s own bakery, I really couldn’t tell!