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Brightly-colored fresh vegetables are a feast for the eye.
Brightly-colored fresh vegetables are a feast for the eye.

Bahrain’s Farmers Market, held in the verdant Budaiya Botanical Gardens, features a huge variety of locally grown fresh produce, traditional Bahraini food and handicrafts, and a cordial, casual atmosphere in which to enjoy a great outing on a Saturday morning. The market is organised by the Directorate of Agriculture and Marine Resources in line with the initiative of H.R.H. Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, wife of His Majesty the King of Bahrain.

Its aim is to support Bahraini products and provide farmers with the opportunity to promote and sell their fresh vegetables. Hugely popular with locals and expats alike, the market attracts thousands of shoppers every Saturday during its opening hours from 8:00 am to 12:00 noon. It’s held from December through June. Parking is a problem so it’s a good idea to get there early. By the time we exit Budaiya Highway at around 10:30 am there is a long line of cars waiting to get into several very small parking lots.

We drive a few blocks past the market and park on a crowded side street. Throngs of people enter the market and flock to the many stalls on either side of long walkways that traverse the shady gardens. Farmers from nearby villages display an assortment of fresh vegetables that are a feast for the eye: bright orange and red cherry tomatoes, shiny colored peppers and dark purple eggplants, redstalked rhubarb, long twisty light green cucumbers with dark green stripes, big round orange pumpkins and other varieties of squash in different shapes and colors, and unblemished snow-white cauliflowers.

Bundles of deep green kale and spinach entice healthconscious shoppers along with a huge assortment of lettuce and other fresh greens and herbs. The freshness and quality of the reasonably- priced produce is truly an inspiration to healthy eating. The nurseries that participate in the market also add bursts of color to the scene with many different types of flowers, trees, and shrubs for sale: multi-colored petunias, bright yellow daisies, and fragrant white and purple alissium.

Largeleafed fig trees seem to be a popular purchase, with shoppers anticipating the sweet fruits they’ll hopefully harvest later. The farmers are friendly. Besides being happy about this successful marketing venue they also enjoy the chance to interact with the public. “We look forward to coming here every Saturday,” says Sayed Ali Alawi, an older gentleman with a farm in Buri. “We like to see all the people having a good time. They stock up on fresh local vegetables, have something to eat, enjoy the fresh air, and socialize with family and friends.

It gets them out of the house and away from their routine. You always end up running into lots of people you know at the market and there’s a real sense of community. Sure, we’re happy we’re doing good business, but meeting nice people, like you guests from Kuwait for example, is worth more than all our earnings.” We chat with the farmer a bit longer and he invites us to his home for dinner. He’s reluctant to take no for an answer but when we explain we have a plane to catch later he bids us farewell and asks us to come see him next time.

In grassy areas and under big trees, groups of ladies and families have spread out rugs and blankets and are having leisurely picnics. There’s also a sort of outdoor food court, with small booths and restaurants selling mainly local dishes but also burgers, Lebanese street food, and waffles. Plastic tables and chairs under tall trees allow the diners to sit and eat in the shade while listening to the soothing sound of the wind rustling through the leaves. After a long walk around the market we’re ready for a hearty Bahraini breakfast. But since we arrived late, many of the food booths have already sold out. “The Best Breakfast,” however, serving a “farmers breakfast,” is still doing a brisk business so we grab some trays and get in line.

Young Bahraini men are doing the cooking and serving and they explain that they’re a group of friends who get together and do this every Saturday morning. For two Bahraini dinars, about the equivalent of KD 1.600, we get a big plate with fried eggs, sweet vermicelli noodles flavored with saffron and cardamom known as “belaleet”, a slightly sweet mixture of browned flour, butter, sugar and spices called “aseeda,” flat bread and cheese, and round friend dough balls (“elgaymat”), drizzled with “dips” or date syrup, and hot, milky cardamom flavored karak tea to wash it all down. Fried liver should have also been included in the meal but they had run out.

Properly fortified after our breakfast we continue our tour of the market. Inside a palm frond hut a Bahraini lady is sitting and painting an intricate pattern in henna on the hand of a Kuwaiti girl. “This is red henna,” explains the henna artist, “and although it looks green now, when it dries it will turn red. It will last a couple of weeks or longer, depending on how much contact her hands have with water.” The lady’s husband tells us that he made the palm frond hut himself and that it’s called a “barasti.” His parents taught him this traditional work, and also how to weave baskets and other items from palm fronds by hand. “In the old days in Bahrain, people used to live in these types of dwellings and most household items were made from the leaves of palm trees,” he adds.

In the next booth, a lady is selling dried herbs, spices, and a variety of bottled waters made with the essence of different herbs, spices, and flowers. Most have medicinal properties, such as those made with thyme, frankincense, celery, cinnamon, the heart of the palm, mint, fennel, and many others. They’re produced by Al Jaser Factory, a well-known Bahraini company. Home-made quince marmalade and spicy pickled vegetables and mountain garlic are popular items sold at a booth nearby.

It’s already after 12:00 noon and most of the farmers and vendors are packing up. But on the way out we notice a booth with vegetables and a sign that says “organic produce.” “We’re called the Bahrain Line Aquaponics Center and we’re the first farmers in Bahrain to use this special method of growing vegetables, and the second in all the Gulf,” a young lady says proudly. Her parents are on hand to explain the process in detail, along with a model of their method of farming which is called aquaponics.

“To put it simply, aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture, or raising fish, and hydroponics, or the method of growing plants without soil. This tank with water, which is attached to the growing basin, is used to raise fish. The fish waste provides an organic food source for the growing plants. The plants in this model, which is a convenient size for home use, grow in clay pebbles but in large scale farming we use chips of granite,” says Anisa Khalaf. “We raise tilapia fish for eating, and ornamental koi fish.”

Her husband, Sami Al Mandeel, continues the explanation of the benefits of this sustainable method of farming. “Instead of using dirt or toxic chemical solutions to grow plants, aquaponics uses highly nutritious fish waste which contains all the nutrients that plants need. The fish, in turn, are fed with non-GMO pellets. In hydroponic farming, the water is disposed of weekly and it goes into the sewage system and then usually into rivers, lakes, or the sea along with all the dangerous external supplements. Many farmers aren’t even aware of the dangers of this toxic run off.”

According to the husband and wife team, aquaponics uses much less water than conventional farming or hydroponics, and no toxic elements. That’s because instead of discharging water, the plants and the media in which they grow are used to filter and purify the water, after which it is returned to the fish tank. The water can be reused indefinitely and only small amounts need to replenish that which is lost through evaporation.

“We also use an IPM system which stands for integrated pest management. That means that instead of using harmful pesticides we use beneficial insects like lace wings, praying mantises, and lady bugs to combat the bad insects like mites, and bees are used for pollination, thus imitating nature,” Sami says.

“More awareness needs to be raised about aquaponics and organic farming, but we hope it will become increasingly popular,” Anisa adds.

The couple will soon acquire their United States Department of Agriculture certification that will officially label their produce as one hundred per cent organic.

The last of the shoppers are now exiting the garden, some of them pushing supermarket trolleys piled high with vegetables. Everyone looks happy with their purchases after a fun and relaxing morning at the Bahrain Farmers Market.

By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud Special to the Arab Times

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