If you visit Dubai Garden Centre on a Saturday morning, you'll soon realise that something rather special is going on. Amid the aisles of green foliage and blooming plants, right at the back of the store, the Ripe food market can be found.
First you're likely to stumble upon a row of tables laden with cardboard boxes, all of them filled with properly fresh produce - leafy, fragrant basil; courgettes of wonderfully irregular sizes; potatoes with the dirt still clinging to them.
A treat in itself.
A quick chat to Ripe founder Becky Balderstone will reveal that all these ingredients were picked less than 48 hours ago, from farms near Al Ain and Abu Dhabi. Not only that, these farms adhere to organic practices. The vegetable boxes cost Dh80 or Dh130, depending on size; the former should be enough for a family of two for a week, the latter for four. This means produce that is local, organic and affordable - a real rarity in the UAE.
Although during the summer months the selection is limited, the variety of produce will grow as the weather cools. Last weekend, the boxes contained potatoes, parsley, peppers, mushrooms, lettuce, eggs, rosemary and basil. Soon there will be salad leaves, fruit and other seasonal goods to add to that bounty.
Starting in November, Ripe customers will be able to order their vegetables online and pick them up from various collection points in Dubai. After that, there are plans to launch a home delivery service. And those that live in the capital needn't despair; the first Ripe market will be held in Abu Dhabi on November 18 at the Desert Garden Centre in Khalifa Park.
Balderstone says that the idea for Ripe came from a desire to see more local, organic produce being sold in the UAE and her experience of similar famers' market initiatives back in the UK. Consequently. she set out to create "the type of market and atmosphere where people who are passionate about being creative can come together to sell arts, craft and food items".
It seems that she is well on the way to succeeding. The Ripe market is a busy, bustling place, with a variety of different stalls. In one corner, Louise Fichera and Sam Souter, the women behind Pink Peppercorn, display their produce: a range of fresh, gluten-free, preservative-free dips and spreads, made from local ingredients where possible. A steady stream of customers frequent their stall; they sample the dips (varieties include artichoke and Parmesan, tapenade, rocket and cashew pesto, smoked salmon and fresh herbs) and often return later to make purchases.
Fichera and Souter started their quest for what they deem to be "Dip Domination" 11 months ago, after realising that there was a gap in the market for fresh, locally produced spreads. They believe that the market provides the perfect platform for selling Pink Peppercorn goods. "Ripe is the first of its kind in the UAE and it brings like minded 'foodie' people together. As a consequence, it attracts the right target audience for our products. It is also setting standards and has a great level of marketing support behind it," says Fichera.
At an adjacent table, a little girl, perhaps three or four years old, stands up on her tip toes to better admire the brightly coloured, prettily decorated cakes on display. Anna Hayworth, the owner of Scrumptious Cupcakes, offers her a little square of chocolate brownie to try and what a smile she gets in return. Thanks to the biscuits, cupcakes and brownies, it's clear that this stall is the favourite among the children.
Hayworth set up Scrumptious in late 2007 and has been selling cakes made in her home kitchen from organic free range eggs and pure butter ever since. "I believe you get out what you put in; if you use great fresh ingredients, you will produce great cakes," she says. She has also been involved with Ripe from the start. "It really is a wonderful market and is very sociable; people come every Saturday, pick up their vegetables, a cake or two, some delicious breads and jams and more. It's an exciting thing to be part of."
Iris Claerhout who runs Cooking. ID along with Djamila Yahiani, is similarly enthusiastic. "Being part of the market is wonderful, it has a real family feel to it and will be even better in the cooler months when we can set up outside." The two friends, who share a lifelong love of food and cooking, sell a variety of homemade preserves, delicious chutneys, jams and salsas.
Having just tried a sample of their bestselling onion jam, Katy Armstrong, who moved to Dubai from the UK two years ago, quickly purchases a pot. This is her first visit to the market and she says that she will definitely be back. "When we first arrived here, one of the things that I missed the most, apart from friends and family of course, was visiting farmers' markets to pick up food for the weekend - just simple things, fruit, a couple of great cheeses and a loaf of freshly baked bread. Now it feels like Dubai is taking a step in the right direction; it's almost like being in Europe!"
Ewelina Krzakala lives in Jumeirah and visits the market each week. She is a fan of the vegetable box scheme in particular: "I think it's a great idea and much needed over here - you can really taste the difference with the vegetables; they are just so fresh."
Despite the relatively small size of the market, there does seem to be something for everyone here. Areej Jomaa from A Sweet Connection sells freshly made gluten-free goods: beautiful cakes, cookies and biscotti. Customers can sample a variety of La Tourangelle oils from Gourmet Point (flavours such as pumpkin, pistachio, avocado or black truffle) and hot waffles are cooked to order for those that might have missed breakfast.
From next week, customers will be able to purchase locally produced biltong, boerewors, cheese sausage and other South African specialities from The African Kitchen stand and for anyone with a sweet tooth, Suzanne McDonald, otherwise known as Toffee Princess, will be selling her range of handmade luxury fudge, made from a secret family recipe and available in a variety of different flavours.
What's most striking about the Ripe market is the genial atmosphere and relaxed, community feel. People of all ages wander from stall to stall, happily chatting both to each other and to the exhibitors, tasting as they go. This is a far cry from the sterile supermarket experience and therefore deserves to be celebrated.
The Ripe market is held every Saturday from 9.30am to 1pm at the Dubai Garden Centre.