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

 

 

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Superfood from a tree

Or is it a herb?

Last week, we finished gathering in our Zaghloul dates. We started at the end of August, and the total crop came to 19 kilos, not bad for a first harvest from a young tree (I’ve no idea how young: reading a palm is tricky for the novice..!)

Most of the dates were still firm and red, but some were turning soft and brown-black at the end. There was a little damage from birds, and a lot of dust.

We had watched the dates develop over a period of several months from the time they were fertilised in the spring. This was done by clambering up a step ladder positioned by the trunk with a few male strands full of pollen in hand, and brushing them against the female flowers, then leaving the strands leaning against them, lodged in position by the ribs of the leaves.

The procedure is carried out in farms and gardens all over the country once the flowers appear in March/April, with local agricultural suppliers selling the strands of pollen.

I made sure the tree was fed with manure in spring, and we kept it well watered through the summer. We gave it no further attention: the strands of dates were not too numerous and there were only three bunches, so thinning didn’t seem necessary. What we may do next year is shin up the ladder at some point and re-position the bunches so they are easier to access at harvest time. The tree might look more decorative too!

Zaghloul dates are widely grown in Egypt, and incredibly popular. Children often love them. I’m not entirely sure why… True, if you are lucky you bite into crisp and crunchy flesh, full of sweetness and juice. If unlucky, your mouth turns incredibly dry, you can’t swallow the fibres, and you end up with hiccoughs. That’s been my experience, at least.

Of course, you can wait until the skin turns deep brown and the flesh softens and becomes quite golden. In my view, that’s the point where the dates become truly delicious – but you have to keep the rest of the family from eating them all first…

Almost everywhere you look, date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) are part of the landscape in Egypt.

In fact, they look much better as part of an oasis in the desert, or forming great groves in the countryside than as a lone tree in a garden. Palms are oddly social trees – they need companions, I think.

Of the order Arecales – monocots, along with grasses among other strange relatives that are mostly “herby” according to Colin Tudge* – palm trees are hugely diverse. To start with, there are well over 2,500 species. The adventitious roots grow straight from the trunk – no complex network of branching roots in their case – and they may be incredibly thick. And if we had some trouble climbing up beside our small tree, then it is sobering to think some palms reach 60 metres in height; residents of the Andes, however, not Egypt.

When we lived in the Arabian Gulf, dates ranked alongside fragrant, lightly roasted and cardamom-laced coffee as essentials of life. The trend was for ever more rarefied, and expensive, selections as the population became wealthier.

Historically, though, the date was a staple of the bedouin diet. Date palms, found across the Arabian peninsula, provided a true superfood, packed with nutrients and full of energy-giving sugars well before processed foods and sugar-filled drinks began their relentless invasion of the Middle East.

The list of health benefits goes on for miles. Dates are: cholesterol- and fat-free; fibre-rich; packed with amino acids (dates for body-builders?); bursting with vitamins A, C and an assortment of Bs; blessed with trace elements that may elevate the mood: zinc, for example; with fluorine to protect the teeth; and with sugars (yes, we were bound to get to them, eventually) that are happily slow-releasing, so not too damaging… What more could one want, other than a tiny cup of campfire coffee offered by an hospitable host under a starry desert sky?

 

*The Secret Life of Trees – Colin Tudge, published by Penguin Books

Dates have been grown in Egypt since pre-historic times: evidence of their cultivation abounds in the art and artefacts that have survived in ancient Egyptian tombs -more on the history of dates in Egypt in a future post.