During the relatively fruitless months that stretch between October and February (when the first fresh strawberries become available) is a good time to appreciate the fruit of the date palm, or Phoenix dactylifera.
Approximately 95% of the dates sold in the United States are grown in California’s Coachella Valley near Indio. While we were in the Palm Springs area, Martine and I spent the afternoon preceding Christmas Eve visiting two date gardens, the Oasis Date Gardens in Thermal and the Shields Date Gardens in Indio.
There are a number of different varieties of dates, ranging from the large and hypersweet Medjools to the Deglet Noors (my favorites), Zahidis, Barhis, and Khadrawies, to name just a few. When one buys relatively recently harvested dates in the Coachella Valley, they tend to be more moist. Supermarket dates just don’t cut it. Sometimes I will buy dates from our local farmer’s market in Santa Monica, because the dealer there drives in all the way from Mecca near the Salton Sea.
Below is a photo I took at the Shields Date Gardens:
Note the ladders dangling from the top of some of the trees. During the harvest, they are joined to other ladders so that the dates could be hand-picked. There is, insofar as I know, no mechanization possible that would maintain the quality of the crop. The trees are relatively bare now: As October approaches, the bunches of dates are covered with a cone-shaped paper wrap to prevent rain and predators from damaging the crop.
Most Americans tend to be relatively unfamiliar with dates, which comes as something of a surprise to me because they are sweet, loaded with vitamins and minerals, and relatively inexpensive. But then, I have been buying them from the Coachella Valley for over forty years.