Fancy a date?

What kind of dates do you prefer? I love the gooey and soft variety, the bigger the better. I have to admit though, I have tried only a few and their names are long forgotten, except for the one I can’t get enough of whenever I manage to lay my hands on them: Medjool dates.

It’s time we have a serious talk about dates, the fruit of the date palm tree. It’s not Valentine’s Day yet.

I recently went on a guided food tour in the charming city of Alicante in Spain and it was great. Truly. The organizers smashed it, they greeted us, ignorant visitors, as if we were their family members. We were led through the Central Market and not only did we get a taste of the cuisine of the region but we could sense the dedication of the vendors towards sustainability and quality food. Some of them were selling products they brought from their family farms. One lady, who was in her 80s, had been working in the market for 60 years. Can you imagine holding down a job that long in the current job market?

Hers was the stall where we were offered Medjool dates to taste, which is called the fruit of kings. It’s pricey and luxurious, its essential minerals sweetly melt in your mouth like a fluffy golden-brown cloud. And I watched with sheer horror on my face when after biting into it, half of the group spat their dates out.

Give your date a chance! When you visit a date-producing country, you see dates lying scattered under the date palm trees, and when you visit an orchard in any part of the world, there are fruits on the ground in various states of ripeness. That’s normal but it doesn’t mean that we can afford to deliberately throw them away, wasting such an invaluable delicacy.

Not all fruits are meant to reach maturity, and some diseases may also cause them to fall ahead of schedule. Besides, the weather conditions significantly influence the harvest. Prolonged drought, which occurs often in date-countries, can destroy the yield and years or decades of hard work. This is why are those fruits that reach our markets so precious and certain varieties are not even affordable for the average market-goer.

Dates are grown in many parts of the world and not only in Middle Eastern countries as one would think considering the diets it traditionally belonged to. You can find palm orchards not only in China, Albania or Chad among others, but in the desert of California too. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Egypt is the world’s biggest producer of dates, producing “1.7 Million tons per year which represents 17.7 % for the world’s dates production”.

Producing dates takes tedious labour as well as reliance on and trust in the forces of nature. As the climate crisis increases, the sights and fields like those I witnessed in Morocco on my previous visits will be more and more prevalent and devastating. Browsing the stalls of a market in Marrakesh or visiting a weekend market in the High Atlas, you will see an abundance of produce, the diversity of vegetables and fruits would be the envy of many European vendors.

Wander further though and see how things are on the ground. Visit a family garden in the Sahara and see what it means and takes to ensure that we can decide whether to enjoy or spit out a piece of date on a market in Spain.

During one of my visits to the Sahara, my guide, the smiley and sharp Idir, who lives where the desert begins in a small village called M’Hamid, took me to see how he tries to keep their family garden alive. He does it amidst the environmental disaster that we amicably call climate change maybe because it sounds less threatening that way and it frees us from our responsibility.

Idir showed me the nursery where he grows his seedlings and hopes that they will survive. It takes 4 to 8 years for a palm tree to bear fruit and nothing is guaranteed. His family’s survival is left to the weather.

Idir waters his small garden of herbs and a few vegetables from a dug well but a few years ago it dried up almost completely. He was desperate to deepen the well to access the remaining groundwater but the land was so rocky that without the necessary and expensive equipment, he didn’t get very far. He now relies on the little stream of water that is still flowing for his plants and date palm trees.

When we moved deeper into the desert, walking further away from the village, all I could see was the cracked soil and the one-time oasis of palm trees with their dried-out trunks that their owners left behind in despair.

The situation is challenging even for big companies and farms that have the resources to supply the necessary amount of water during the harshest of droughts, but small orchards like the ones of Idir and his family, may not be able to cope much longer. Palm trees can survive for years without rainfall, but without water, they won’t bear fruit.

When dates reach the required maturity, they are harvested ripe or unripe, either with the use of forklifts or a simple ladder, and a machete or a long curved knife to cut the clusters. They then have to be sorted manually because of their stickiness, and cleaned before packaging. Insects, their dead bodies, and dust can also infect the harvest and it affects their marketability.

Fumigation has been used in the past 100 years as a method of pest control, but according to an article on the preservation of date, only chlorpyrifos-methyl (Reldan) and phosphine are considered safe by the food industry. Methyl bromide, used by many producers has been phased out by 2015 worldwide because of its ozone-depleting quality, and the pressure to use sustainable methods in all areas of production is continuously growing. 

Considering all the labour of humans and nature that goes into the production of this luscious fruit, will you next time make sure to eat them when offered? Or just say “no, thank you”, if you are well aware of your aversion to everything sweet. It shows respect towards your host and the environment.

It’s ok to say no but it’s not ok to waste resources.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *