"Honor . . . the palm," said Mohammed, "for it was created from the clay left over after the creation of Adam."
It is entirely possible that dates grew in the Garden of Eden. For millennia, they sustained the nomads of Persia, Arabia, and North Africa, but it was not until 1860 that dates were first cultivated in the United States.
Because dates have the remarkable ability to thrive in the scorching sun, botanists found them no less mystical, naming them Phoenix dactylifera after the mythological phoenix who rises from molten ash.
Around the turn of the century, date palms found a permanent home in Southern California, primarily in the dry Coachella Valley, 140 miles southeast of Los Angeles. At this very moment, the last of this year's date crop is being shaken from the trees in and around Indio, Calif., the self-proclaimed date capital of America.
Those fortunate enough to taste a fresh date are certain to agree that the contrast between fresh and dried dates is as dramatic as the contrast between fresh and canned asparagus. For many, it is worth the extra effort and expense to obtain the fresh item.
The chewy Deglet Noor variety is the least expensive and most widely distributed variety of dates. The fibrous and dry fruit holds up well when transported. While the Deglet Noors are perfectly adequate to use in baking, they cannot compare to the majestic Medjhool, the acknowledged king of dates. Twice the size of the Deglet Noor, a jumbo Medjhool is pleasingly plump, glossy mahogany, and intensely rich with a flesh as mellow as ice cream. The fresh Medjhool is best eaten at room temperature with no accompaniments except, perhaps, a cup of strong, black coffee.
Several mail order houses offer fresh dates. A selection recently sampled contained fruit with subtle variations of taste, texture and hue. The jumbo Medjhools were all of very fine quality.
Fresh dates are expensive -- ranging from $4 to $7.25 per pound -- because their cultivation and harvesting are labor intensive. Each male date palm is surrounded by a harem of females, but pollination must be done by hand since the blossoms do not attract bees. When the dates ripen, workers must scale one tree as many as 50 times to shake the dates from clusters. The fruit is sorted by hand and classified according to color, size and quality.
Fresh dates are perishable, but may be refrigerated from one fall harvest to the next with only minor loss of taste and texture. Freezing is recommended for the softer varieties such as Medjhool, Barhi, Kadawi and Halawi. (There are more than 100 varieties currently being cultivated in California.)
Dates must be stored in air-tight containers, and it is wise to bring to room temperature only the amount you expect to eat. They are quite rich, and a few go a long way.
According to the Valerie Jean Date Shop, in Thermal, Calif., the white sugar film that appears on some date varieties, particularly the Medjhool, is caused by moisture and temperature changes. Although quite edible, the film can be quickly dissolved with the wipe of damp cloth. Some dates, because of growing or transportation conditions, may become somewhat dry. To soften them, sprinkle the dates with a little water and place them in a covered container for about 30 minutes or set them in the sun in a covered, plastic dish. The same method applies if dates start to show sugar spots.
If mold should start to collect on them, cut off the affected portion. The rest of the date will be tasty. If the dates are promptly refrigerated upon arrival, mold is quite unlikely to be a problem.
If you have never before tasted fresh dates, you might like to experiment first with either of the variety packs listed below. Contents may vary according to availability, but the assorted packs are divided into four sections and usually contain small Medjhools plus three other types: two light colored or "blond," and the fourth a "brunette."
Date connoisseurs or adventurous sybarites may want to special-order the Barhi variety. These small, round dates are extremely soft and do not travel well, but even if they arrive slightly mashed, their memorable flavor and texture remain.
Both companies offer a wide variety of assortments and will send free color brochures upon request. Prices include shipping.
Valerie Jean Date Shop, P.O. Box 786, Thermal, Calif. 92274. (714) 397-4159.
Assorted dates: 3 pounds, $11.95
Fancy Medjhools: 3 pounds, $14.95 Selected Medjhools (show quality, individually cupped): 3 pounds, $16.40
California Redi-Date Inc., P.O. Box 816, Thermal, Calif. 92274 (714) 399-5111.
Assorted dates: 3 pounds, $11.75
Fancy Medjhools: 3 pounds (three 1-pound boxes), $16.75
Barhis (individually cupped): 3 pounds, $14