With farmers’ markets and top restaurateurs flying the flag, this delicious local produce is heading straight for your plate
Friday April 23, Souk Al Bahar: Dubai’s first farmers’ market is in full swing. There are six different farms represented, many of them organic, and they are spilling over a large expanse of patio outside Baker & Spice. Mazaraa, the only certified organic farm in the UAE, is luring a swarm of people with its baskets of cherry tomatoes. Elsewhere, Ali Nassar Al Refaee, the CEO of the eponymous trading company, has sold out of peaches: it’s only two hours since the market opened (trading kicked off at 11am, although some eager customers arrived at 9.30am).
‘To be honest, I never expected this reaction,’ says Al Refaee, who has called in for a second delivery of peaches. It’s no wonder he sold out; these are the most fragrant, juicy and flavourful peaches I’ve sampled since arriving in Dubai. What makes them all the more extraordinary is their origin: Saudi Arabia. ‘When people think local, they think chemical, but this is wrong and we have to fix it,’ he says. ‘The mentality here is changing, though, and very, very fast.’
The day is warm, and I’m perspiring so profusely that Al Refaee grabs a napkin to mop my head. The humidity doesn’t seem to affect the crowd, though, which is a testament to how hungry the city is for a local food market. The prices are cheap, too – I walk away with a cantaloupe, two peppers, two tomatoes, four mini aubergines and five chillies, all for just Dhs15.
The market’s organiser, Baker & Spice founder Yael Mejia, says the time is ripe for a Dubai-grown local food movement. ‘The recent shutdown of flights in Europe really emphasised the UAE’s dependence on imported produce,’ she says. ‘The more we buy locally, the more local produce will be grown, vastly reducing food miles.’ She plans to run the market for another two weeks before taking a summer hiatus, but aims to reopen in September.
Of course, when the public gets a taste for something, restaurateurs aren’t far behind. Aside from Baker & Spice, whose whole philosophy revolves around selling local and organic fare, Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire has been one of the first major restaurants in Dubai to look into local suppliers.
‘Dubai is building institutions, venues that will live long and evolve with the city,’ explains Pierre Gagnaire, the Michelin-starred French chef behind the restaurant. ‘If Reflets hopes to be one of those institutions, we have to look at a sustainable chain of suppliers. It makes sense for us if we’re going to survive in a few years.’
Gagnaire invites me to join himself and his team on a sourcing mission to the new Mazaraa Organic Farm in Al Ain. On the outbound journey, I ask if he expects to replace a lot of his imports with food from this farm. ‘We shall see,’ he offers with a shrug. ‘It depends on what we find, and I don’t know what to expect. If we discover something we can use, fantastic.’
Our first stop is a diminutive shop connected to the farm, which sells its bounty. I nearly trip on a roaming chicken on my way into the store – it transpires that the proprietor, Khalid Butti Al Shamsi, keeps a range of livestock on the farm, as well as bees (the store has a window overlooking a small bee farm, where we can see the honey being produced). When it’s time to taste the honey, the exceedingly picky Reflets crew fall into immediate raptures over a batch made from cedar. I’m slightly incredulous. Where are the cedar trees in the UAE? Al-Shamsi explains that Sheikh Zayed planted a cedar forest in the region 30 years ago (visit in the winter months and you may even spot the occasional deer).
As well as home-grown mango, bananas, passion fruit, gooseberries and aubergines, Mazaraa also grows corn. It’s not the type of crop I expect to see growing successfully outside of the Americas, and certainly not out in the desert, but it seems to flourish here. It tastes good: it’s so fresh that even when eaten raw it’s sweet and tender.
When we tour the farm it feels surprisingly large, partly because it produces so much, but Reflets’ maître d’ Etienne Haro explains that it wouldn’t take much to deplete the land. ‘If he supplies one or two restaurants, already the place will be out of stock,’ he reveals.
The farm doesn’t officially open until after Ramadan, at which point there may even be a handful of guesthouses for visitors and perhaps educational programmes for local schoolchildren. Al Shamsi also has more ambitious plans for expansion. At present he has a variety of animals on the farm – camels, goats, cows, sheep, chickens, ducks, guinea fowl and turkeys – but not enough to sell commercially, although he believes this could change in the future.
There are a lot of neat tricks he uses to keep the farm organic: sunflowers planted all over to attract birds (‘they prefer the taste’); the practice of harvesting ladybirds and other ‘friendly’ insects instead of using pesticides. His efforts are rewarded in the quality of his produce, which inevitably has a lush, concentrated flavour. Everyone seems impressed. As we leave, there is a lot of hand-shaking and hints of future deals. The next Baker & Spice farmers’ market is on May 7 at Souk Al Bahar, 11am-3pm