One of my very first conversations with a Dubai taxi driver revolved around food and farming in the UAE. ‘Apparently the milk comes from the UAE, but tell me, where are the cows in the desert?’ he joked. With Dubai’s supermarkets packed with imported food, including aubergines (a staple of many MENA cuisines) from New Zealand or carrots from Australia, you could be forgiven for agreeing with him.
In recent years, however, Dubai has seen an increased interest in local, organic and seasonal food. Several small farms have sprung up in the region, adopting ingenious methods to overcome the challenges of agriculture in this climate and terrain. This includes the use of extraction fan systems to ventilate greenhouses with air cooled by water, allowing production to continue even through the hottest months. This has allowed developments such as local farmers’ markets, which sell fresh produce at weekly events across the city.
The call for locally and organically grown food has, in part, been driven by expat entrepreneurs, influenced by similar food trends in their home countries. One such entrepreneur is British expat Becky Balderstone, 30, who founded Ripe, which provides a boxed selection of organically grown and locally sourced fruit and vegetables at its Saturday farmers’ market at Dubai Garden Centre.
Since launching in 2011, Ripe’s success has been such that the company is opening a shop in Al Manara this week, to satisfy increased demand. But Ripe marketing manager Lucy Fitton, 27, is confident that this doesn’t mean the end for the market. ‘We have so many loyal customers, I think they would be heartbroken if the market disappeared,’ she explains. By adding the shop to the portfolio, Lucy hopes Ripe can make its produce more accessible, while also widening the selection of foods on offer.
‘The shop ensures we’re not only selling organic vegetables, we also get a chance to showcase lots of products that are local to the UAE,’ Lucy continues. These include bread (including gluten-free products), pasta, oils and cheeses from just outside Dubai. In fact, she notes that an Italian lady called Maria was ‘physically making the cheese’, on the morning we spoke, and Lucy was looking forward to seeing how this had progressed after our conversation.
In keeping with its ethical philosophy, Ripe’s new store is also introducing new products that will help keep weekly waste to a minimum. ‘Being a vegetable company, we have a little bit of surplus left at the end of our working week,’ Lucy explains.
‘So rather than it going to waste, we’re going to use every single scrap of our vegetables for Ripe’s own chutneys and soups.’
With founder Becky on maternity leave, Lucy has had the challenge of seeing Ripe’s own new baby to fruition. Having arrived in Dubai mere weeks ago to ‘an empty cell’, Lucy has been occupied with designing the new store. The first priority was that it should showcase the best of the vegetables. ‘I smelled the vegetables and thought it smelled just like our old potting shed at home.’ With the inspiration coming from the products themselves, the shop has taken on the form of an old-fashioned potting shed, complete with potting bar behind the counter, hanging baskets and watering cans. ‘It’s going to be very rustic and very, very practical, as a potting shed should be,’ Lucy adds. ‘The local market is a very new concept, so a lot of the suppliers are very new companies themselves.’ Yet dealing with small suppliers can have its difficulties: supply of a specific quantity of each vegetable, for example, cannot always meet regular demand. As a result, the company has learned to ‘bend with the wind’.
Nevertheless, the result of this has been extremely fresh vegetables. ‘We call the suppliers and say we want 40kg of tomatoes and they are cut that day. Then we sell them the next day.’ It is the speed of this process, Lucy explains, that produces these wonderfully fresh vegetables with their design-inspiring (and apparently ‘famous’) aroma.
Ripe’s store is scheduled to open in Al Manara on Monday May 14. www.ripeme.com (04 379 0441).