Pesto. Bruschetta. Arrabbiata. This isn’t a language lesson, a spelling test or the menu at an Italian restaurant. But what do the three things have in common? They are popular dishes that are based on tomatoes and basil, one of the favourite food pairings of kitchen aficionados in the mediterranean and around the world.
This partnership has been celebrated since taste buds could taste, but what is lesser known is that the union of basil and tomato goes much deeper than the kitchen: the two are perfect bedfellows in the garden, too. The tomato vines provide shade for the delicate basil, which delays flowering and increases overall yields.
At the same time, basil is a natural repellent for fruit flies and other bugs that love to lay their eggs in the top of a plump tomato. Additionally, tomato roots run deep, while basil stays closer to the surface, eliminating competition between the two so that they can grow to full flavour.
This is permaculture, where plants are grown together because they make life easier for each other. About an hour south of Phnom Penh, the Baitong Project is about a year into operations, transforming a fallow rice field into ground fertile for growing fruit and vegetables that they hope will one day be supplied to Topaz, Malis, Khéma and the rest of the top-end restaurants in Phnom Penh.
“At the moment, we are focused on getting the soil right and growing some of the Cambodian staples from seed,” said Léo, a Frenchman who founded Baitong with his Cambodian wife Sokheng. “It is tough conditions but we are committed to this project.”
While the seasons commonly allow crops to be grown for a few months per year, the tricks of permaculture mean that farmers can be busy all year round. At Baitong, on top of the classic basil and tomato, Léo and Sokheng have begun with a baseline of Cambodian favourites: eggplant, lemongrass, okra, gourd and a plethora of Cambodian herbs. “You start slow, with things you know,” Léo said.
The farm is also open to visitors, who can come to help or to learn about permaculture, and accepts volunteers, which keep the place running. For more information, check out their facebook.