Date Tasting in Palm Desert (And How We Discovered The Incredible “Date Shake”)
South of Palm Springs, just off the long road that is I-10, lies a haven from the endless stretches of road and craggy desert mountains: Oasis Date Gardens. Located in the heart of the Coachella Valley– date capital of the United States– Oasis Date Gardens offers dates in an assortment of forms: cookies, pies, breads, syrups, butters, and (most famously) blended into their iconic date shake, which is a staple item for the many long-range cyclers who pass through the shop to replenish their energy reserves. For those new to dates, a tasting is available, with baskets of different varieties carefully placed along a large round table.
For cyclists making pilgrimages along the length of the West Coast, Oasis Date Gardens is an essential stop. Dates are in many ways the perfect snack, providing much needed energy in the form of a low-glycemic sugar, as well as a host of essential vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre–all of which led one research journal to hail dates as “an almost ideal food.”
Historically, date palms have been called “the tree of life.” They are a significant fruit, one of the oldest crops in North Africa and the Middle East, having been cultivated for at least 5,000 years. In the Middle East, dates were essential to the growth of the culture and civilization there, as they provided essential nutrition in an otherwise unforgiving climate. Believed to have originated in Iraq in the Euphrates Valley, many caravan routes existed merely for the transportation of dates. Because of their importance, dates quickly garnered associations with fertility and fecundity, with many references to dates appearing in the artifacts of ancient cultures like the Babylonians. Legend even tells of Alexander the Great eating dates as he conquered the Persian empire.
Moorish tribes brought dates to Spain and in the late 1700s, Spanish missionaries brought dates to the United States, planting them around their missions. Many of missions were located along the coast and the damp air proved detrimental to the health of the trees, however, and they failed to produce any fruit.
It was not until 1900 that dates became a viable endeavor, after the USDA’s Agriculture Explorers–a group tasked by the government with seeking out new crops to grow in America–traveled to Algeria and found its conditions similar to the Coachella Valley. The palm shoots brought back were an immediate success, fostered by Hollywood’s obsession with the Middle East in the first three decades of the 20th century. The annual date festival in Indio–which began in 1921 and is still going strong today–also helped cultivate the aura of adventure and exoticism surrounding dates, with activities like camel and ostrich races.
A few decades later, World War II marked an increased boost in the production and sale of dates; dates were placed in soldiers’ rations as they kept well and provided a source of steady energy. Many soldiers developed a taste for them and demand continued to grow into the second half of the 20th century. Today, dates remain an essential food in across the world, especially among Muslim communities, who use dates to break their fast during Ramadan.
Oasis Date Gardens offers a date sampling of the thirteen varieties they grow; each has its own distinct character, varying in how sweet, dry, or light it is.
Deglet Noor, which comprises nearly 80% of dates commercially grown in the United States, is often considered the queen of dates and is Algerian in origin. Its name refers to its light, almost translucent appearance (in Arabic “date of light”) and it has a lush taste of medium sweetness, with a semi-dry texture.
The second most important date in the Coachella Valley is the Zahidi, golden colored, and semi-dry, introduced from Iraq and Iran. While similar to the Deglet Noor, it is firmer, well suited to baking.
Medjool–a late comer when it arrived in the US in 1927 (most dates were imported in the first decade of the 20th century)–is soft, sweet, and quickly becoming an important variety in America. Often called the “king of dates,” the Medjool has a caramel taste and a thin papery skin. It is often pitted and stuffed with halves of walnuts or bits of dried fruit, or rolled in shredded coconut for an especially decadent delight.
Of all the dates sampled, however, Barhi stood out above the rest. Though less well known in the United States, the Barhi is highly regarded in Iraq, where it was first cultivated. It is an especially soft and sweet variety, with a deep, rich flavor. The GC team left with several pounds.
In addition to the more prominent types, Oasis Date Gardens sells the following more obscure varieties: Honey, a semi-dry sort that seemed to be a Platonic date–that is, everything you would imagine a date to be; Kways, drier and somewhat reminiscent of raisins; and Khadrawy, a soft, smooth, sweet date with a honey flavor. A few of the date varities are only sold in store because of their limited quantities: Samari, thin and sticky, often eaten fresh in Egypt; Saidi, dry and chewy, with a molasses taste; Black McGill, a medium dry, dark date with a depth of flavor; and Black Abbada, thick, with hints of vanilla.
Even when dried, dates require special storage instructions. Dates placed in the freezer last up to one and half years, and in the fridge they can last up to six months. Dates left out should be eaten quickly (though this surely poses little problem).
While dates provide an easy, convenient source of energy, an immense of amount of work goes into their cultivation. Dates require a hot, dry climate to grow–but they also require access to vast amounts of groundwater, making them a success in the oases of the Middle East, but an ill-suited addition to a state constantly struggling with a water shortage, as date fields are often flooded to keep the trees healthy.
In addition, dates also necessitate human intervention to even produce fruit. Date palms have separate male and female tees–however, female trees emit no scent to attract pollinators and trees must instead be pollinated manually. Once the trees begin to produce a marketable product (which typically occurs after five years), the boughs containing the fruit must be bound and supported so that they do not break under the weight of the growing dates, and the dates must also be covered with mesh to protect them from animals and the elements. Once ripe, soft dates must be picked by hand. For better or worse, dates have transformed the Coachella landscape, becoming one of its iconic features.
There is a timeless, almost mystic quality to dates–their origins in the old world, their constancy across the ensuing centuries, their existence in otherwise sparse landscapes. Ancient and complex, they are as varied as the cultures who enjoy them, consumed and loved by generations. Yet dates are not only a fruit of the past, they are also a fruit of the present and future. With modern science, the extent of their healthful properties has begun to be named and measured, adding to their already well established allure. With modern technology, different varieties have spread across the world, and their popularity continues to grow. So the next time you’re in the Coachella Valley, be sure to make a date of it.