Farm to fork: Slow Food in downtown — new communities, economies and supply lines
Photograph: Nadia El-Dasher

Much of the food we buy is uniform in shape and size. It can be coated in a layer of shiny wax to lure a consumer’s eye, and it’s often buried in layers of plastic. Between household shoppers who buy food from supermarkets and restaurants – both of which make large-scale purchases — there is less and less room for the small-scale farmer.

A few establishments, however, continue to work toward collaborating with marginalized farmers, following the basic principles of the slow food movement.

Nadia Dropkin and Dina Abouelsoud of Eish & Malh, a downtown Cairo restaurant, pair up with Slow Food Cairo on the first Friday of every month for the Slow Downtown: Farm to Fork Menu & Market.

The concept is both appealing and simple: Connect with locally sourced, small producers to build a seasonal menu served at the restaurant, and provide farmers a space to sell their products.

With its first event held on January 22, Slow Downtown is now almost a year old. The atmosphere on the day is relaxed, despite the madness behind the scenes.

“When we started Eish & Malh, we did it as a way to invest in our community,” explains Dropkin, one of the restaurant’s founders.

Indeed, the Farm to Fork event is just one of a number of collaborations. Eish & Malh also hosts a monthly film night in coordination with Cimatheque, and, at their café Kafein, around the corner from Eish & Malh, the K Project Space hosts interdisciplinary artworks linked to innovative local projects in need of support. As the K Project Space enables members of the public who wish to contribute to those projects to do so, Farm to Fork enables people to connect with the slow food movement. In this way, creating community and forging connections is central to Dropkin and Abouelsoud’s approach to their businesses, Eish & Malh, Kafein and, before that, Dina’s Hostel, all of which are downtown.

Their latest venture, Eish & Malh, was founded in 2014, as a restaurant and café that primarily serves Italian cuisine.

Engaging with slow food also makes sense for a pair who critically engage with food and beverage culture.

In fact, just looking at Eish & Malh’s Slow Downtown menu, which explains where different elements of the food have come from, is enough to see the diversity in their sourcing. With around a dozen different producers from throughout the country, it’s clear that Slow Food Cairo is building a blossoming enterprise.

So what exactly is Slow Food? It is food that follows the values of “Good, clean and fair,” says Slow Food Cairo president Sara el-Sayed. The Cairo branch includes approximately 70 different members, from chefs to producers to people who are simply interested in eating locally sourced products.

“There’s definitely more awareness in Cairo right now about food and its sources,” says Sayed.

What makes the slow food movement different to other food movements that focus only on clean or healthy eating is its emphasis on promoting small-scale producers and including them not only as a part of the chain, but also making sure that they continue to be included in the creation of artisanal products. Slow Food aims to encourage small-scale farmers and producers’ sustainability, which they believe is good in itself. However, the organization also believes that promoting the livelihood of farmers ensures that biodiversity flourishes.

Sayed’s fear is that indigenous and local forms of production will disappear without the connections forged by those following the slow food movement’s principles: good, clean and fair.

Dropkin points out that the name Slow Food is, in fact, true to the actual process, “It’s not commercialized. It is slow!” she explains. “There’s a lot of communication between so many different groups which, in essence, is what slow food is about.”

The October edition of Slow Downtown took Eish & Malh’s Dropkin to Fayoum for zucchini, Begawi eggs, lemon and fresh mint. Eish & Malh regularly sources produce from Fayoum, but it also buys produce from all over Egypt.

Photograph: Nadia El-Dasher

Dropkin’s first stop is Wafiq Waheed’s house in Tunis Village, home to seedlings and nurseries. Waheed, a Slow Food Cairo collaborator, is one of the intermediaries between restaurants like Eish & Malh and small-scale, organic farmers in the region. He’s the project manager for the agricultural component of the Italian non-profit organization, MAIS, which works closely with several farm owners in Fayoum to promote cooperation between farmers and to grow clean and fair produce.

After a short drive, we’re introduced to Gamal Gouda and Khaled al-Moula, who produce zucchini and mint. Waheed has been working with the two men through a MAIS project, which teaches farmers about safe ways to grow their crops without chemical treatments.

Gouda and Moula grow their crop using traditional farming techniques and without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

The dry desert soil is turned, before slim, black pipes are run in lines throughout the fields. Loose soil brings the nutrient-rich bottom layer to the surface and improves soil aeration.

Their irrigation consists of a simple system of aqueducts running alongside the field, feeding into the black piping.

Photograph: Nadia El-Dasher

Gouda and Moula’s zucchini and mint are being sourced to make zucchini flower pizza and ricotta, lemon and mint ravioli.

Zucchini flower pizza.

Photograph: Nadia El-Dasher

Like all the pasta at Eish & Malh, the ravioli is freshly prepared at the restaurant.

Lemon and mint ravioli.

At around lunchtime, we meet Abdelrahman Ramadan, who grows grapes, olives and lemons.

Ramadan explains how the olives are pressed for oil and pickled.

Photograph: Nadia El-Dasher

Ramadan’s daughters prepare a meal sourced straight from their backyard: baladi bread hand-baked at home, white cheese made from fresh milk, handmade pickled olives, tomato salad and eggs from the rooftop chicken coop.

Photograph: Nadia El-Dasher

Dropkin and Aboulsoud are known for incorporating music into the restaurant’s identity, with live music now playing on several days of the week, and Slow Downtown is no exception. The October edition of the event was complemented by Abdallah Magdy and Reem Essmat’s soothing acoustic melodies that filled the bright, airy space.

The musical duo, Abdallah Magdy and Reem Essmat, who play rhythm and blues.

Three days later, the market is in full-swing at Eish & Malh. Handcraft healthcare and beauty producers sit alongside beekeepers, farmers and specialty food chefs, all of whom are framed against the backdrop of live music.

While Dropkin looks after the front of the house, her partner, Aboulsoud, is kneading, baking and overseeing the madness in the kitchen. The pair are a powerful team, making the efforts of several hours, days and weeks look like a breeze.

Raw honey from one of vendors at the market.

Guests eat downstairs, while the Slow Downtown market is set up on the second floor of the restaurant which is not normally used.

“Slow Downtown completes the circle between each item, its producer and the people consuming the products,” Dropkin explains. A key part of this chain is enabling people to buy from vendors directly.

Courtesy: Ibrahim Ezzat

Nadia El-Dasher 

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