What are dates?
Dates are the edible fruit of the date palm. This is a flowering species of palm tree that grows in arid regions of the world, particularly the Middle East. These palms grow to heights of around 23m and have either a single trunk or several trunks growing from a single root system. There are male and female trees and kind of like humans, the males produce the pollen and the females produce the flowers and fruit! Unfortunately, because neither birds nor bees find the flowers attractive, the trees have to be pollinated by hand during late February. Date palms have large, vicious thorns around 10–15cm in length. No wonder they have to be removed before anyone can safely work on the dates! s
The dates begin to form in dense strands in April or May, which are thinned out in the centre of the strand to give the fruit enough room to grow.
At the beginning of August, before they’ve ripened, the fruits are covered with a muslin bag to protect them from birds and insects. The muslin bags also catch any that ripen ahead of the others. When the dates have ripened, using ladders or a mechanical platform, pickers fix a basket under the muslin bags and harvest by hand.
The dates are then sent to be sorted and packed. They usually contain a stone (unless they’re pitted, of course).
There are at least 30 varieties with the difference generally being the level of glucose, sucrose, and fructose. Some of the best examples come from the Gaza Strip and are a rich red colour and sweet. Another popular variety is Zaghloul from Egypt. Zaghouls are very sweet with dark red skin. They are long in shape and crunchy in texture. If you want luxury, try the Sukkary from Saudi Arabia. Although they are expensive, their dark brown skin, soft flesh and unique sweet flavour make them popular. And then there’s the Khadrawy, soft, dark dates that are popular among the Arabs.
Dates are sweet and rich with a sticky texture. They can be bought on their stem or packed in boxes and are available stoned (pitted) or unstoned. Although fiddlier to eat, the unstoned variety usually has the best flavour.
Eat them as a sweet snack or chopped into porridge instead of sugar or honey. They’re also delicious as an ingredient in cakes, biscuits and desserts, and can be served with cheese, stuffed with almonds or coated in icing sugar. Dates are often used in North African dishes, particularly tagines and couscous recipes.