No, I’ve not done a 360 on this down-and-dusty blog and caved in to the high street. The experience I’m talking about is out on the sun-washed lawns of the hotel’s ballroom gardens. It’s out under the small white pavilions where the first ever Farmers Market in the UAE reopened its green gates for business on Friday.
I strolled through the stalls, buying my favourite Yemeni honey from Riath at Balqees, sneaking in tastes of Baker & Spice’s fresh breads and pastries, and enjoying the interaction with the farmers present at the market.
The conversations and experience that morning planted a seed in my head – I have to find a way to work with those spearheading the local farm movement. The common person like myself needs to gain an overview of farming techniques in the desert, learn how to select good produce, engage in more nuanced local vs. organic vs. sustainability debates, participate in cooking lessons with the harvested produce, and eventually become intricately tied in to the local farm movement. I’m still mulling over how to move forward with this, but I do feel strongly about it – just as strongly as I did when we launched the educational Sustainable Fish Market visits in Deira.
We sat out on the lawns, exchanging news and gossip over swigs of coconut water and messy bites of giant breakfast sandwiches made fresh on the grill by Baker & Spice.
The tender sesame bun on my breakfast sandwich gaped wide with shock at its centre, screaming in protest because I’d rebelliously asked for every choice of ingredient to be shoved into its delicate mouth. The two bun halves were divorced by the enormous burden of a soft-boiled pickled egg, omelette, chicken sausage, lettuce and caramelized onions, all glued tenuously together with tomato salsa and homemade yoghurt-mango sauce. I simply couldn’t bear to leave any condiment feeling unused and rejected on the grilling table.
The sheer excessiveness of the sandwich, something that might as well have just walked off the sets of an American ‘Craziest Eats’ TV Show, was incredibly childish and liberating. And that moment, juggling a sandwich bursting with wholesome high-quality B&S fillings, cozying up on the shaded patch of grass, laughing with My Custard Pie, Chef Silvena and the flying Airspectiv maverick – that moment was the highlight of my month.
The first time I visited the market back in 2010, I unfairly compared it to the giant markets of Seattle and NYC, each of them plush with all manner of fruits, veggies and baked treats. At the time, my heart sank at the limited variety of what was on offer at Dubai’s farmers market. It was a piddly fraction of what I had encountered abroad. I was more focused on scale, on variety, on exotic ingredients rather than the simple notion of what is available locally. I had behaved as a spoil brat whining for what wasn’t there, and completely missed the point on what was there.
It is only now that I understand the broader context of a trend that places like Baker & Spice, Greenheart Organics and RIPE had set into motion – baby steps towards educating the community and sourcing high quality local produce in what is essentially a desert. Educating the community comes first, and the resulting demand fuels the movement for more local produce. What we get in Dubai may not be as diverse as what you get in other countries – obviously, we are in a desert and our supermarkets fool us into believing otherwise with their lush stacks of imported ingredients. But when you learn to cook with what is locally available and in season, you start focusing less on what you don’t have and more on the quality and preparation techniques of what you do.
My fridge is now stocked with okra, beans, farm-fresh eggs, eggplant and the most addictively savoury corn bread whose salty spiciness had best be dunked into a bowl of creamy vegetable broth. I am proud that the local movement has started and is taking commendable steps forward in Dubai. Even if the variety of produce doesn’t grow, I do hope that people’s support of whatever little is available does.
The Farmers Market on the Terrace takes place every Friday, for about 6 months of cool weather in Dubai. More information can be found here.