At Makar Farms, the baby eggplants are almost ready for harvest. In two weeks’ time, the tiny purple eggplants will be plucked, packaged and shipped out to the public to join the rest of Makar Farms’ unique, organic vegetable varieties, which range from leafy green lettuce heads and yellow cherry tomatoes, to spicy radish sprouts and bitter bok choy.
Located off the Sakkara road among some of Egypt’s most coveted arable lands and founded by the Makar family in the 1880s, Makar Farms has long catered to restaurants at five star hotels across Egypt. But with the drop in tourism in the past five years, the family decided to remarket their products to the general public and began selling them in regular stores, a learning process for a business used to selling in bulk without worrying about packaging or marketing.
The silver lining of this shift, says Mounir Makar, has been the discovery of a new generation that is passionate about organic, quality produce.
“This was totally unexpected and very refreshing,” says Makar excitedly at one of the monthly tour and chef’s table events the company has been hosting over the past year. “We really didn’t expect to find such a strong interest among people for products that used to only be appreciated by chefs.”
Through social media outreach and different events, the Makar family set about creating a demand for their products. One of their ventures is their deliverable weekly vegetable box, which puts together a selection of the fresh vegetables available on their farm that week and has been growing in popularity. But cooking with purple kale and orange zucchini flowers can be confusing at first.
“People would get our vegetables, and they’d be like, this is great. It looks great, but what do we do with it?” says Farida, the elder Makar daughter. So they brought in chef Diana William to create recipe cards to accompany the boxes.
These visits are the next logical step — last summer, Makar Farms began hosting monthly chef’s tables and farm tours, where different chefs were invited to prepare elaborate meals for 30-40 people using the farm products.
The family used to host lunches and dinners for close friends and family, and it is only in the past year that they have decided to turn their flair for hosting events into a part of, and a complement to, their farm business. The farm’s location, just a 30-minute drive from central Cairo, also helps attract visitors.
“It’s very special to have this land in this area, where a lot of farmland is disappearing very quickly,” says Farida.
When Makar Farms was founded in the late 19th century, the family planted traditional Egyptian crops, mainly cotton and wheat, until land distribution policies in the 1960s significantly shrunk the farm’s size. At the time, the farm was run by Makar’s father, George, who began to introduce previously unknown varieties of fruits, specializing in plums. An early innovator, he developed a method to induce artificial spring, making the trees think spring had come earlier and prompting them to bear fruit 45 days faster that usual, thereby avoiding the hot dusty Khamaseen winds and giving the plums a better chance at survival.
But the king of all vegetables, says Makar, is the endive. “They were first introduced to Egypt by my father, and that is why the endive is on our logo.”
Bearing the image of the endive (also commonly known as chicory) on the farm logo is not just a matter of family heritage, but it is a nod to the little-known local origins of this leafy white bud.
The name endive developed from the Medieval Greek entybon, which is believed to have developed from the ancient Egyptian toba, the name of the coldest month of the year in the Coptic calendar, and the season when endives would begin to grow in Egypt.
The variety of endive commonly grown in Europe is cultivated in different conditions (grown in absolute darkness to maintain its blanched leaves) from the green chicory still often used in Egyptian cooking today. Bringing this variety of endive to Egypt was more of a delayed reintroduction to their place of origin.
“Our challenge is how to acclimate our vegetable varieties to the Egyptian climate,” says Makar. “We’re always trying to introduce new products to Egypt and prove that they can work here.”
And that is what the Makar family has been doing for the past three generations. As years went by the farm’s crop list grew to include a vast array of agricultural products. Forty years ago, Makar says, they were the first to introduce broccoli, at the time a little known and exotic vegetable, to Egypt. Likewise, they were the first to introduce the now common cherry tomatoes, according to Makar.
Today, they mainly specialize in leafy green vegetables. In their 15 climate-controlled greenhouses, varieties of lettuce, kale and watercress stretch out in dazzling shades of green and crimson. About a hundred people work on the farm’s 20-feddan premises, including several families who live on the property.
As one of the early adopters of hydroponic farming methods about 20 years ago, Makar uses a hydroponic system designed and built on the farm, supplied with water from a 42-meter-deep well and complemented with added nutrients. With this method, Makar can produce more than 15 times the normal produce per acre and can cut down on the time taken to grow and harvest vegetables (cucumbers for example, can be ready to eat in 40, rather than 65-70 days). Some of their products, particularly root vegetables and cabbage varieties (carrots, broccoli and Brussels sprouts) are still grown directly in the soil using a drip irrigation method. To maximize the use of space, Makar also plants in the soil below the suspended hydroponic system, so that any water that drips down does not go to waste.
Makar Farms is certified organic by two international bodies, the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Germany CERES Certification of Environmental standards, which was no easy feat.
“It is a tedious, daily process that takes about two years. You have to make records every day for how every crop is doing,” Makar explains, adding that inspectors make sure there are no traces of herbicides or pesticides at any stage of the growing process.
Egypt does not have an organic produce certifying body, leaving local farmers to turn to foreign organizations for certification. However, this may soon change with the new organic farming bill, which will task the Ministry of Agriculture’s Central Lab for Organic Farming with setting the standard for local organic produce.
During our visit, we were lucky enough to attend their sixth chef’s table and were treated to a mouthwatering meal prepared by chef William, who also does the recipes that are sent out with the delivered vegetables boxes. After a tour of the farm’s various greenhouses, led by Makar, Chef William performed a short cooking demonstration, before we were led to the artfully arranged dining table.
We began our feast with a homemade flatbread topped with feta cheese, wilted kale and zaatar, followed by a beetroot and orange salad on a bed of watercress topped with crunchy toasted almonds. A tangy fattoush salad offered a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the beetroot, and the meal’s centerpiece was a lamb roast stuffed with mushrooms and more kale, with a side of tomato vermicelli.
As Makar strive to foster collaborations with local businesses, they sourced the lamb for our meal from newly founded local butchery The Right Cut, while the blown-glass bowls adorning the table were provided by Makar’s longstanding partner, local craft and gift store Turath.
In keeping with their spirit of innovation, Makar says the farm aims to introduce at least one new vegetable variety a year, their newest product being the tiny habanero peppers, whose deceptive cuteness masks an extreme level of spice not for the faint of heart (as I found out the hard way).
Now Mounir Makar is passing on the baton to his two daughters, Farida a researcher and university lecturer, and Malak who works with local art-house cinema Zawya. They both became involved in the family business about five years ago, handling marketing, outreach and social media. Care and attention to detail are abundant at Makar farms, with the family taking a hands-on approach to the farm’s daily happenings. Although they didn’t come here very regularly as children, Farida recalls always having a connection with the farm.
“Everything here we built ourselves. The hydroponic system is from the farm, these tables were built on the farm, and the window in the kitchen over there is the old window from my bedroom,” she says as we dig into a dessert of strawberry cream shortcake and caramel-topped panna cotta.
Pink chard, orange carrots and purple cabbage make up the table’s simple, rustic centerpieces, prepared by Farida herself, their color palette channeling the last days of winter before the yellows, greens and whites of spring flowers set in.
Which brings us to one of Makar’s most innovative agricultural introductions: Edible flowers (of which I ate one too many at the farm, but let’s be honest, given the chance, who wouldn’t want to eat pretty flowers?). These delicate floral treats are a perfect decorative topping for desserts, and a colorful way to give life to a salad bowl or a dull dish.
The challenge now, says Makar, is how to produce winter flowers in the summer, which shouldn’t be too difficult for a family used to pushing the limits of traditional farming.
“What we try to do it work with nature, not to disturb it, but to see how we can adapt to it,” says Makar. As for whether we can expect a summer bloom of their edible winter flowers, Makar says, smiling, “We’re definitely working on it.”
All photos by Lamis Youssef