"We have a market just like this in Berkeley," the Californian drawled one Friday morning at Souq Al Bahar, "only much bigger and with more variety."
"Of course you do," said Yael Mejia. "Only what is going on here is much more significant."
That's a big claim. Berkeley's Farmers' Market and flea markets are famous throughout California, drawing thousands of customers from all over the state for their weekly dose of "fresh baked goods, jams and preserves, juices, olive oils, goat milk and cheeses, prepared foods, nursery plants, and flowers". Musicians are on hand to entertain the shoppers, and special cultural and educational events are scheduled regularly throughout the year.
So what's that got to do with our little Friday morning chat outside Souq Al Bahar? Plenty. This is where the weekly Farmers' Market on the Terrace takes place, a regular gathering of farmers from around the UAE, there to sell their produce direct to consumers, without the middle men; the supermarkets. Since its early days, it has become a full-fledged community initiative.
The farmers' market began as a result of Yael Mejia's desire to run the Dubai branch of the London-based Baker & Spice outlet based on the same ethical principles as the company's origins. That meant locally sourced ingredients, organic wherever possible, and always fresh from producers who care about what they're growing. Today, the Farmers' Market on the Terrace does a roaring trade every Friday. Every week, there's a who's who of local bloggers, writers and chefs all there to see what's fresh, and to grab something exciting to put on the table.
The first Farmers' Market on the Terrace took place on April 23, 2010, but it nearly didn't happen. Time was rapidly running out and the growing season was coming to an end, but fortunately Emaar managed to get all the permits in place just in time and the first market went ahead. Following a media blitz and a blaze of publicity, the first day saw 4,000 people crammed onto the terrace, and every last vegetable was sold. The demand was clearly there, but the first season only ran for a couple of weeks. But season two kicked off in September the same year and ran until March, then season three began in November.
The local growing season is at its peak now and every week something new is brought to market; recently it was the first peas of the season, crunchy and sweet and in pods so fresh you could eat them whole.
The market shows what a range of vegetables can be found in the UAE - peppers, aubergines, courgettes and chillies are all in abundance. Big fat cabbages and creamy white cauliflowers. Broccoli from Sharjah so big it resembles a small tree. Potatoes, carrots, turnips and radishes, celery and rocket, parsley and coriander. Big boxes of green beans, all plucked from the vine that morning. Eggs laid by hens free to roam the farm. Lettuce, fennel, kholrabie and spinach. Spring onions the size of leeks, and leeks the size of spring onions. Imported pomegranates, navel oranges, heavy grapefruit, strawberries. You could spend hours here looking, smelling and stocking up for the week. Best of all are the prices - without the middle men to take their cut, some of the freshest vegetables in Dubai are also some of the cheapest.
And it's not just fruit and veg you'll find. Baker & Spice has a stall with its full range of breads, cakes and preserves for you to taste and buy. Organic spice importer Down To Earth has a magnificent array of everyday and hard to find ingredients, and you owe it to yourself to discover the intensity of flavour afforded by organic spices. You'll find rice and pulses, oils and teas and mineral salts. And across the aisle are the Bokashi compost girls, helping you make the most of kitchen waste by returning the benefit to your garden.
You'll find Hayley Mac with her extraordinary range of raw, vegan and unprocessed ingredients like raw chocolate and purple corn. Chef Tomas Reger was just one of the people I bumped into, drawn by the quality and variety of produce. It is a profound pleasure to find such abundance of natural produce on display in the reflected glory of the magnificent Burj Khalifa.
Across the other side of town, there is another initiative that aims to bring a very similar abundance of vegetables to people but in a different way. Founder, Becky Balderstone and her team operate Ripe, a market and vegetable box scheme that takes place at Abu Dhabi's Khalifa Park Garden Centre every Friday and at the Dubai Garden Centre every Saturday morning.
Ripe general manager Greg Waite showed me around the Al Quoz headquarters and explained how the organisation works. "We source locally, and buy from dedicated farmers across the region. Every day we look for what is going to be best this week, and order in enough for all of our box customers, plus a bit more to sell at the market. Right now, almost everything is in season, and we're getting treats like courgette flowers for chefs who want to try something a bit more adventurous."
Ripe's sale of fresh vegetable boxes is expanding rapidly thanks to social media. The organisation has even pioneered home delivery and local collection points for box customers, and offers online ordering.
The farmers who Ripe buys from have an enthusiastic and growing number of customers who are eager to enjoy their fresh, local produce.
The short supply line maximises the profit that goes back to the farmers, has obvious environmental advantages and ensures consumers get the freshest produce possible.
Ripe offers two box sizes - a small one suitable for two to three people priced at Dh80, and a larger one for three to five people that costs Dh130. Each box contains a variety of seasonal produce (between six to eight items, typically potatoes, carrots, courgettes, mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, lettuce), and can either be delivered depending on your location, or picked up from convenient distribution points around the city. Ripe is well-established in Dubai, has a market in Abu Dhabi and a collection point in Al Ain.
Ripe has attracted a number of other artisan producers and food makers to join the event. A typical Saturday spread now includes the fabulous Italian cheese makers from Sharjah, with their mozzarella, buratta, scamorza and ricotta all fresh and delicious. You'll find exotic oil importers, preserve and pickle makers, gluten free and artisan bakers, fresh juices and more.
It's a real carnival atmosphere; confirmation if ever you needed it that quality ingredients direct from the source are one of the greatest secrets to successful cooking.
Becky, like so many pioneers, set up her business because she couldn't find what she wanted through regular channels. "After moving from the UK, I struggled to find fresh, organic and local produce at affordable prices, so it seemed like the obvious choice was to introduce the concept myself." Now Ripe distributes a range of fresh produce boxes through regular markets and deliveries across the UAE.
Similarly, Yael was driven to source what she wanted directly from the growers because there simply wasn't the supply available through existing channels like the supermarket. Recognising that her customers shared that passion, she set about establishing the Farmers' Market on the Terrace at Souq Al Bahar, and plans are well advanced to expand the concept further.
What both women share is a passion to see the people of the UAE enjoying fresh, healthy and seasonal food, grown by farmers who care for their land, and for their crops. That both their ventures have become so popular shows the rightness of their vision, and we are very lucky indeed to have them.
If you haven't been to a market recently, go check them out this weekend. You'll be amazed at what's available, pleased at the prices, and a better cook as a result. In fact, it is a return to our roots, an escape from the tyranny of take-outs and TV dinners, a reconnection with the land and the seasons. And what of Dubai's other fruit and vegetable market at Al Aweer? That's a whole other story for another month!
Ripe at Khalifa Park Garden Centre, Abu Dhabi, Fridays 9.30am till 1.00pm
Ripe at Dubai Garden Centre, Saturdays, 9.30 am till 1.00pm www.ripeme.com 04-380-7602
The Farmers’ Market on the Terrace, Souq Al Bahar, Fridays 9.00am to 3.00pm