Growing up with a Middle Eastern parent, I was introduced to dates at a young age. Lazy Sunday afternoon lunches were often finished with dates that were hoisted down from a high-up cupboard like a secret stash. They were also always a part of the holiday dessert table along with trifle and fruit cake, an edible representation of my parents’ two cultures merging. From then on it was clear to me that no matter when I ate them, dates were a delicacy.
Having been traced as far back as 50 million years, dates are the world’s oldest cultivated fruit. They are the fruit of the date palm tree, which thrives in desert climates and is native to the Middle East and North Africa, where they’ve been a staple in the diets of Arab countries like Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for centuries.
Dates grow in large clusters, like grapes, and are suspended up to 75 feet in the air on palm trees. Date palm trees are unique in that even though male plants produce pollen, birds and bees aren’t attracted to it, so female plants have to be carefully hand-pollinated by date farmers. The plum-sized fruit starts off bright yellow in colour and then deepens to amber as it ripens. Each individual date matures at its own pace, so those that are still yellow are set aside and left to ripen further in the sun.
In the 1900s, American botanist Walter Swingle travelled to the Middle East in search of exotic foods to bring back. He discovered that the temperatures required for growing dates were similar to that of the Coachella Valley in Southern California and brought back a cutting of a date palm tree to plant. The palms thrived in California, and have been grown there ever since, currently producing 95 percent of the dates grown in the U.S.
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