On the drive in the direction of Sakkara to Makar Farms, you leave the city behind to be greeted by bucolic scenes of the Egyptian countryside.
Near Makar Farms, currently owned and run by Mounir Makar, history and present day collide; peasants lead buffalos while Makar’s farm workers continue the construction of a new green house, complete with a complex water irrigation and humidifying system to grow exotic winter lettuces such as oak leaf lettuce and lolla rossa year round.
Hot weather is the main challenge facing lettuce growers in Egypt. But great demand and the variety of French lettuces have led Makar to develop a method of planting a half-acre plot to produce a capacity of lettuce, normally produced over 15 acres. This method greatly reduces the land and water consumption required to produce a monthly yield of roughly 42,000 lettuce heads a month.
Makar is an avante garde farmer so to speak, growing vegetables and fruits that are not native to Egypt by using techniques and methods (very often those he has ingeniously conceived and designed on his own) to coax stubborn produce out of the soil.
Hydroponically grown endives, leafy lettuces grown in a green house, cherry tomatoes grown year round, as well as assorted herbs and plants such as French spinach and lemongrass are all grown on the farm. He’s also working on raspberries; I am incredulous at the thought that I am eating raspberries in March in Egypt as he plucks a succulent one off a delicate stem.
He says he enjoys challenging nature, “to revert the season, to grow what is ‘impossible’ in Egypt and succeed, and that is it. Each time we have something said to be impossible to grow in Egypt, that is the beginning of my story.
But the story of Makar Farms started even earlier. Established in 1880, this vast expanse of land was passed down to Mounir Makar’s father George, an agricultural engineer who studied at the prestigious University of Agriculture of Grignon in France. George was the first to introduce asparagus cultivation to Egypt almost 40 years ago, and today Mounir, a retired economist and banker, has been focusing on introducing new varieties of tomatoes, salad greens, and herbs such as tarragon and thyme.
With an avuncular nature and a great passion for what he’s doing, he is a delightful guide as he leads me around the farm. We discuss his plan to grow a new generation of black, white and yellow cherry tomatoes, as he picks ripe red ones off a fast-growing stalk and dusts them off before we pop them in our mouths. Delicious and juicy, it’s an absolute novelty to me to eat something so fresh and untampered.
Makar’s thumb is quite green, surprising and delighting French seed providers such as Ville Morain, a leader in the seed production industry.
“They think I’m a bit of a mad man, as he grows temperamental plant varieties. Yet they call on him to test new varieties, and he does so with much patience while also creating new varieties of seeds.
Most of what’s produced on the farm is purchased by restaurants and hotels; it is very likely that each stem of red, purple or white asparagus you eat in Egypt has come from Makar Farms, or else that delightful endive and goat cheese salad made its way to your plate from here in Sakkara.
Asked about the new-found attention to food and farming in Egypt, he said, “I think basically there is a concern for quality and health. People are more concerned about quality and quality means new varieties, better varieties, better ways of growing. When you take up these things you have to put in the time, the effort and the investment. It makes a very full-time activity that needs a lot of research, technology and to improve you have to invest and so it becomes a project in itself.
Almost all of the plants he grows on his farm were never intended for the scorching heat of Egyptian summer or the whimsical heat waves Egypt has been experiencing during winter over the past few years. Yet, he guarantees year round production.
“We’re looking after the quality of products appreciated by foreign chefs, customers and individuals but we’re actually going back to roots.
Endives are the farm’s greatest success story. They are hydroponically grown in almost near darkness, in a temperature-controlled fridge that has a pungent and organic scent of water and vegetation.
“We tell the plant it’s living in Northern Europe in cold weather and it shouldn’t complain and be happy so there’s no reason for it not to grow properly, and so it grows properly,
Endives, however, once originated in Egypt.
“‘Endive’ in Latin origins is ‘endivi’ from Egyptian origin ‘in-touba,’ in-touba being the coldest month of the year in the Pharoanic calendar. A type of chicory that was grown by ancient Egyptians, traveled with the Romans to Europe and started growing [from the chicory family], but beer, foie gras and asparagus are also of Egyptian origin. In Karnak, you see on the temple walls pharaohs offering a bundle to the gods.
At Makar’s farm, the plants are closely monitored to avoid the use of herbicides or insecticides. “All plants are treated in a micro environment, so no herbicides are necessary; I don’t need them. A beautiful tobacco flower is growing on his farm, and he points out that he’s researching the use of the tobacco flower as a potential organic insecticide, organic farming being Makar’s favorite approach.
In addition to personal inspections, Makar also educates his workers on the farming methods implemented in the farm. But one of the challenges is getting the farmers who have for generations practiced basic farming techniques cotton on to the novelty of Makar’s efforts and philosophy.
There are plans to open up a restaurant in a year’s time in collaboration with Chef Vincent Guillou. It is planned to be built on the farm and to provide walkabouts before dinnertime for patrons.
But for now, there is the farm’s kiosk to pick fresh groceries from. Another small kiosk outlet will be set up within the coming week aboard Le Pacha boat restaurant in Zamalek.
Makkar Farms Sakkara Road. Giza.www.makarfarms.comTelephone: +202-3817-3202, +202-3817-3844Mobile: +2 012-210-8674