This article was first published in the Khaleej Times for Kari’s weekly food column When Hunger Strikes on November 25, 2011.
It had been over two years since I last visited a farm and I was eager to connect with the people, hearts and hands that plant, nurture and harvest the food we ought to be eating. When Hunger Strikes was offered a rare trip to a local farm by Yael Mejia of Dubai’s baker & spice café at the launch of the third season of their farmers on the terrace farmers’ market initiative. I grabbed the opportunity to share with you the remarkable work that they have pioneered in making local foods available to us all in the UAE. Armed with my camera bag and sheer eagerness to tell a story that needs to be documented, I set out to Al Shuwib Organic Farm, just over the Dubai border in Al Shuwib Abu Dhabi.
Armed with my camera bag and sheer eagerness to tell a story that needs to be documented, I set out to Al Shuwib Organic Farm, just over the Dubai border in Al Shuwib Abu Dhabi. Yael, a food consultant to Baker & Spice with over 20 years experience in the farm to table food business spanning Europe, the Far East and the Middle East, said: “This was my concept in London and, in 1995, when I started Baker & Spice there, that’s how we worked. It was a long time before anyone started talking about carbon footprints and the ramifications… I was naturally inclined, possibly because of my interest and knowledge in how food actually grows, and where and the seasons and all these issues. I used to shop for the business and by doing so, became very familiar with how the food business works.”
Yael eventually sold the business in London and was asked to come over here and consult on the opening and operations of the Baker & Spice in Dubai. She accepted the offer because she saw beyond the arid desert conditions and knew that the UAE is located in and amongst an incredible area.
Her vision and confidence in the local and regional markets to supply Baker & Spice has earned the bakery-cum-café top marks among those who know and understand food. Freshness sets their food apart, and the Farmers on the Terrace initiative at their Souk Al Bahar location, has been eagerly lapped up.
Food is more political than we think. Factory farming practices championed by the US and other countries have made nature’s bounty everything but natural. Fertilisers, additives, and preservatives sprayed on even “fresh” produce that have to travel thousands of miles to reach us make them anything but good for our bodies. Every time we buy things from these factory-farming producers, we make a very dangerous vote with our wallets.
Farming has long been part of the cultural landscape of the UAE and other countries in the Middle East. Older local and established families all have their own farms and never shop in the supermarkets or local markets, which often sell produce from afar.
Now we have the opportunity to tap into a growing local initiative to supply a wider cross section of our population with the goodness that grows here.
“The Farmer’s Market could not have been possible without the help of the Emaar Malls Group who recognised the need to raise awareness of homegrown produce,” said Yael. Contrary to popular belief, local and organic produce is not that expensive. Since local farmers do not have to contend with high transportation and export/import duties, the cost to us as consumers is nominal in comparison to those that have been shipped.
Yael and I had an engaging conversation in the 90 minutes it took us to reach the farm. Those 90 minutes are also all it takes for fresh, local food to reach the Baker & Spice Farmers on the Terrace Market every Friday as produce is harvested every Friday morning.
When we arrived at the Al Shuwib Farm, we were greeted warmly by farm manager Hosam Rezeq, and his farm hands, Ahmed and Badr. According to Hosam, a seasoned horticulturalist and crop farmer for 15 years, “People who grow organic food do so because of the philosophy of organics. It is more expensive and yields less produce than the factory farming methods with all the chemicals, but it is just better for you.”
The Al Shuwib farm is irrigated by ground water, which they use sparingly and efficiently to grow their produce. Operating for 10 years as a private farm, they expanded their production last year to provide food for our own tables.
Now with 60 greenhouses operating a mechanical cooling mechanism, they have even bigger plans to move over to an adjacent property with 60 hectares of land.
Stepping into the greenhouses and seeing the first produce of the season was inspirational. This farming season, they will be supplying lots of fresh herbs, aubergines, courgettes, corn, tomatoes, celery, snap peas, okra, pumpkins, strawberries and lots more.
Hosam noted that the extreme temperature and geography of the UAE summer has several positives for farming: the heat of the summer provided a natural opportunity to kill bacteria, fungi and insects that would affect plants and flourish in other more lush countries. The team at Al Shuwib Organic Farm harvest the power of nature to kill these harmful organisms by covering the soil with plastic in the summer heat instead of using the chemicals used in commercial factory farming. “We are going back to what our grandfathers and great grandfathers would do,” said Hosam with a smile. “We use the natural animal manure to fertilise the soil and we rotate crops every season.” Sure enough, camels were grazing in the wild nearby.
Coming from a farming family and culture myself, I have always thought farmers to be inherently good people. I felt that same connection on this farm halfway across the world from my home. When people who are really connected and passionate about farming grow food on a smaller scale, their produce tastes better.
I will definitely be thrilled to be meeting more farmers every Friday at Baker & Spice. You should too! As Yael promises, “We are all eagerly waiting to discover what the new season will bring: the chickens are laying eggs again and the first batch of real, local organic eggs arrived in our Dukkan Al Manzil shop this week. Numbers are limited but the hens have been instructed to up production!”
Farmers on The Terrace opens every Friday from 9am to 2pm. It is expected to run every Friday during the cooler winter months. Baker & Spice, Souk Al Bahar, is open for foodies between 8am and 11pm (04 4252240). Baker & Spice at Dukkan Al Manzil is open between 7am and 11pm (04 4279856).
A new Baker & Spice location has now opened at the Dubai Marina Promenade and they now also have a weekly Farmer’s Market on the Terrace on Saturdays from 9am -2pm.