Comment: Counting the days to the Farmers' Market

The sixth season of the Farmers' Market on the Terrace to begin this month

Yael Mejia.
Yael Mejia.

The anticipation of autumn, of the heat and humidity dissipating slowly, brings with it the knowledge that as we all breathe a sigh of relief for the passing of summer, things are hotting up in farms all around the UAE. We are in ‘countdown mode’ for the start of the 6th season of The Farmers’ Market On The Terrace.

It brings back memories of the first Farmers’ market we organised all those years ago in April of 2010, on the terrace in Souk al Bahar, in the shadow of Burj Khalifa.

When I came to Dubai to set up Baker & Spice as 2008 was drawing to a close, one of my first tasks was sourcing local and regional fresh produce. This is one of the guiding principles of our kitchen and I had no intention of changing course.

I knew there was farming here and I just had to find it and connect. It took a year of investigations, phoning, cajoling, travelling in the desert, begging, and we ended up working with three farms. They delivered fantastic produce to our kitchens, mainly vegetables. The “field to fork” concept had landed in Dubai.

Customers started asking questions about how we were making our food and when told about our direct farm supplies their disbelief made me think about sharing the news and the produce. I have to admit there was no altruism involved. I knew that the more markets opened for the farmers, the more produce will be planted, the more secure my supplies will be. Selfish, is my middle name. We set a date and went to the press.

In retrospect we changed the conversation about food in the UAE forever. The media storm was incredible and 4000 people turned up that first Friday to shop. We had four farmers there. It was the end of April, the end of the growing season really, and after three weeks it just got too hot and stuff was running out. Seven months later the market was back for a full season, it was fantastic and over the ensuing four years it has become a favorite winter fixture for many people Dubai.

The knowledge that the produce is organic, local, of such amazing quality and so cheap, has resonated with people who are concerned about what they put in their mouths and how they feed their children. Being able to connect directly with the people who grow the food we eat is something most people think is important. Many global food scandals have contributed to this global concern. Having pioneered the farmers’ market revolution, many other markets have followed in our footsteps and clearly it is far easier to access local organic produce in Dubai.

The Farmers’ Market On The Terrace moved from Souk Al Bahar to the ballroom gardens in the grounds of the Emirates Towers Hotel two seasons ago, and we couldn’t be happier with our surroundings, in the shade of a beautiful avenue of palms, in a green garden, bliss.

All over the world farmers markets have made a comeback. Unfortunately commercial pressures here and abroad mean that even in my local ‘farmers market’ in London, most stalls are not manned by farmers, but by market traders who move around from market to market trading other people’ products.

It is rather perverse that in a country where farmers don’t proliferate, we managed to keep The Farmers’ Market On The Terrace true to basic principles. It is a farmers’ market in the correct sense of the word, still the only one in the UAE.

The apostrophe matters here; this market belongs to the farmers, and is for them. As a community led initiative, not a business, they don’t get charged to attend. They pass these savings to their customers. Every season brings with it more varieties of vegetables. The farmers are surprisingly adventurous and are attuned to trends through their direct conversations with shoppers. It is a joy seeing old friends and like-minded people learning to love the people behind their food.

My favorite time of the week is without a shadow of a doubt 8am on a Friday morning, standing in the garden and watching the market coming together. I have the first pick of everything. All my triggers are laid out in front of me. And in my mind, I am cooking and putting together the salads and pots of the coming week. To a chef this is heaven. Food is a great leveler. We all have to eat.

Bringing people to the table is an oft-used term applied to everything these days. But the essence of it, the source, has everything to do with sharing resources, be they plenty or meager, sharing of food, conversation and ideas. As the season ramps up, we will take you into the farms and get up close and personal with the farmers.

Bio: Baker & Spice food consultant Yael Mejia is responsible for spearheading the very first locally inspired community-based farmers’ market initiative in Dubai. She continues to lead the discussion on local agriculture and its importance as part of the global food solution. The Farmers’ Market on the Terrace was first launched in 2009. It is a market by the farmers, of the farmers and for the farmers. All generated income goes to the farmers directly. It will return for its sixth season in November.

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