Dubai: Imagine having a cup of tea with herbs freshly plucked from the garden? You can choose your own flavour from a range of seven kinds of basil, two types of mint or even edible blossoms like calendula, dahlia and marigold.
Far-fetched as it may seem in a desertscape like the UAE, a group of volunteers has made this possible, thanks to an “urban rooftop garden” they manage at the Time Oak Hotel & Suites in Dubai’s Al Barsha Heights. And as Laura Allais-Mare, who spearheads the group, will tell you, the tea treat is only one of the many spin-offs of being part of the green community initiative.
Founder and director of the non-profit Slow Food Dubai convivium, Laura said the volunteers – 37 of them at current count – meet at the garden every Saturday where they do everything from preparing the soil and planting the seeds to pruning, watering and harvesting the plants.
Holding out a handful of dried okra, she said, “These are going to seed. All seeds used in the garden are heirloom organic seeds and all gardening techniques are as close to permaculture or natural farming or food forest principles as possible.”
In other words, the 32 plants grown in the garden are chemical and pesticide-free. Which explains why the products carry a strong, rich aroma and flavour.
A piping hot basil tea concoction – comprising fresh honey, black and green Indian tulsi, pink and white flowered Thai basil and liquorice basil ‑ is sample enough to understand the difference from a processed variant.
“Our garden is not about things looking good. You go wow and realise its value only when you start picking stuff, smelling and tasting them.”
Besides actual gardening, volunteers help organise a host of events and activities to promote and share the Slow Food ethos, including taste workshops, seed swaps, farm visits, social meals, film screenings, markets and festivals and educational projects.
Slow Food, explained Laura, is part of a worldwide movement that puts people in touch with what is local and ethical, with the aim of promoting a good, clean and fair food system.
For Time Oak, the engagement of the community is as worthy as the cause.
Guzman Muela, general manager of the hotel, said, “The reason why we promote this concept is to show that these things can happen in a place like Dubai. It’s a great community initiative and is very educational too. In fact, we invite schools from time to time so that students are exposed to such sustainable practices.”
The initiative also helps foster a great sense of bonding in the community, said Laura, recalling a bizarre case in which two women who lived in the same building in an old Dubai neighbourhood discovered they were neighbours only at the garden.