Dates

Dates

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

At first glance, dates are not immediately appealing. For many people, they are those hideously sweet, dried things that turn up in date slices, biscuits and steamed puddings. For some reason, dried dates are also a traditional Christmas gift, packed tightly into long oval boxes which are brightly decorated with palm trees, camels and mysterious foreign writing.

All it took for us to fall under the spell of these ancient fruit was a visit to the Middle East. Here were names and places familiar since primary school: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem – and Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, described in the Old Testament as ‘the city of palm trees’. Under the hot desert sun our guide pointed out a small oasis of date palms swaying gracefully in perfect, picture-postcard fashion. Clustered among the fronds were fresh dates, as big as amber-hued eggs. We could smell their sweetness in the air, and they were soft as warm toffee in our mouths.

It wasn’t hard to imagine these most ancient of trees growing in the very same spot ten thousand years ago. As our guide explained, the date palm has been revered for its usefulness since Neolithic times. Although a tree takes up to six years to fruit, once mature it will yield up to 100 kilograms of fruit annually, for an average of sixty years. Furthermore, the tree itself provides shade and building materials, while its fronds are woven into mats and baskets.

Dates have been a staple food in desert lands for many thousands of years. Their high sugar content meant that they became the mainstay of the nomadic Bedouin’s severe diet, and the prophet Mohammed was said to have survived entirely on dates and water during his self-imposed fast. Dates still have a special significance for Muslims during Ramadan – the day’s fast is often broken with a bowl of dates and a glass of water, or they are served whole with a wedge of lime as a garnish for the traditional harira soup.

Today there are hundreds of varieties of date palm, which are grown in the Maghreb lands of North Africa through the Gulf States, Israel and Iraq to Pakistan, India and even California.

Australia’s date-growing industry is still in its infancy, as date palms take a minimum of six years to reach full production. Most of the ‘fresh’ dates we enjoy have probably been imported from California or Israel. Although they can never match the buttery, brown sugar flavour of a sun-warmed fresh date eaten in its homeland, these are still quite delicious.

It is thought that dates first reached England in the thirteenth century. As with so many of the new foods brought across the seas by returning crusaders and merchants, they were very expensive and their use was mainly for sweet puddings and desserts. Even today English recipes for dates revolve around the bakery – recipes for date slices and loaves, scones, cakes and sticky puddings abound.

In the Middle East, however, they are not so restrained. Moroccan and Persian recipes frequently partner dates with lamb or pigeon. Rice and grain dishes are often garnished with chopped dates and a sprinkling of nuts. Dates are also used extensively in sweet dishes: they are preserved in syrup, cooked into a jam and chopped and stuffed into shortbread biscuits. Some of the most exquisite sweetmeats are made by stuffing dates with an almond, a pistachio nut, or a nob of rose-scented almond paste.

Selecting and storing dates

In North Africa and the Middle East, there is a seemingly infinite variety of dates to choose from, and their selection is a serious business. A purchase from the souks involves much sampling and deliberation together with long explanations of the differences between the numerous varieties on offer. In Australia we have to be thankful for what we can get, in most cases the deglet noor, which are a light golden colour. The other dates readily available in Australia are the luxurious medjool dates, which are darker, plumper and larger. When selecting dates, choose those which are unblemished and have a rich and fairly uniform colour. Although the wrinkliness of the skin varies, as a general rule, the drier and older the dates are, the more wrinkled the skin is. Because of their high sugar content, dates keep remarkably well. They do not need to be refrigerated and will keep for several weeks.

Using dates

Really, the only think you have to remember when preparing dates is to remove the narrow pip inside. Simply slit them along one side and the pip will easily come away from the sticky flesh.

Recipes in this Chapter

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again