Hot Dates

Date Seller, Morocco

Dates are a staple food in many desert lands, and this dried fruit seller in Meknes, Morocco, offers many different varieties, along with a few figs.

While a coconut palm may be the quintessential image of hot, humid, tropical landscapes, the inescapable image in hot, dry, desert landscapes is the date palm. (Have you ever seen a picture of a desert oasis that didn’t include a date palm?) In arid parts of the Old World, the fruit of the date palm is sufficiently important to actually be categorized as a staple. Desert Arabs often have little else to eat besides milk and dried dates.

Dates most likely originated in the region around the Persian Gulf, probably in or near Iraq. In Iraq’s Shanidar Cave, archaeologists have found discarded stones of wild dates that go back as much as 50,000 years.

Dates were both cultivated and widespread long before anyone had a way of recording what was going on. In fact, dates were among the first fruits to be deliberately cultivated, certainly before 4000 BC, by which time cultivation had spread at least as far as eastern Arabia. Carvings from the earliest periods of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations make it clear the date palm was already established as a staple food in these regions.

Not only were the trees being selectively raised early on, they were also being hand pollinated right from the beginning. Date palms are either male or female, and because females are the only ones that bear fruit, you want a lot more female trees, especially if you live in some tiny oasis with a limited water supply. If you had only a couple of male trees, you didn’t want to simply hope that the wind would carry the pollen someplace useful.

Dates spread east to India and west to Carthage—and Carthage became a major center of date growing. The date was so important to the economy that the date palm appeared on Carthaginian coins.

The ancient Romans tried to grow dates, but while the palms will grow successfully, and even blossom in cooler or damper climates, if they don’t have exactly the right blend of heat and dryness, they either won’t produce fruit or the fruit will never ripen. Hence, the Romans had to import their dates from the Middle East. (They thought the best dates came from Jericho in Palestine.) For the Romans, dates were often used to sweeten other foods. They could also be used to flavor sauces or might be stuffed to make a dainty confection.

It’s not really certain when the Chinese learned about dates, but it was fairly early on. Having no region with a climate suited to growing them, however, they had to import their dates. From the time of the T’ang dynasty (ad 618–907) onwards, China was importing dates from Persia.

Dates were well known in Europe during the Middle Ages. They’re really sweet and store well, so it isn’t hard to imagine why. When Marco Polo began his wanderings, his comments were simply about the beauty of the groves of dates he saw and the quality of some varieties he encountered, but he clearly knew dates well. His one date-related “discovery” was a date wine in southern India, which he wrote “makes a man drunk sooner than grape wine.”

Dates were among the desserts served at most formal French dinners in the 1300s, though these exotic treats didn’t come within budget-range of the average French working person until the conquest of Algeria. While it is not certain when dates reached England, they were common there by Elizabethan times, sweet puddings being the primary way they were used at the time—still a common outlet for dates in England.

Dates were introduced into Spain by the Moors when they took control in 711. The Spanish actually succeeded in growing dates in their southernmost regions. Of course, if Spain had dates and date palms, that meant the New World was going to have them, once Spaniards realized that there were places they would grow. The Spanish introduced the palms into Mexico and Baja California, where the transplanted seedlings did well. Baja was even exporting dates by the early 1800s.

While dates were planted at the Spanish missions founded in California, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that California really became a major player in the world date market. Thousands of plants from selected varieties in Algeria, eastern Arabia, and Iraq were brought to southern California by Paul and Wilson Popenoe in 1912. The crop proved to be profitable, and cultivation spread. Today, there are about a quarter of a million date-bearing palms in California and Arizona. (And if you get to Palm Desert in southern California, you definitely want to try the Desert Palm Date Shake, a milk shake flavored with a handful of crushed dates—yum.)

Only the common date, Phoenix dactylifera, is cultivated for its fruit. The word “date,” like the dactylifera in the fruit’s Latin name, comes from the Latin dactylus, which means “finger.” Most varieties of date are oblong, and some varieties are almost as long as a finger, hence the name. And there are many varieties. In the main producing areas (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and across North Africa), 30 to 40 named varieties are available in the markets. In the U.S., we usually only see a few. The semi-dry dates that are most popular in the U.S. are actually among the less sweet varieties, though they are more aromatic and distinctively flavored than sweeter dates—so it seems a fair trade.

[This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.]

©2008 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Food, History

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