Don't be intimidated by this familiar yet mysterious fruit

Fruit expert David Karp on the date, a fruit at once both familiar and mysterious.

On where dates come from

David Karp: Dates are native to the oases of desert areas of the Mideast and North Africa. Date trees need fiery heat and lots of water around their roots, although crops are ruined by rainfall. In the U.S. most of the nation's date gardens, as date orchards are called, are in California's Coachella Valley, located between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea. There temperatures far exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and fall, but the Colorado River provides plenty of irrigation water. Harvest runs from August to December and dates are at their finest in the months after harvest.

Date trees reproduce from offshoots that grow from their bases. Each tree produces only a dozen or so offshoots in its lifetime of 80 years or so.

On date varieties

DK: In the Mideast dry dates, like the Thoory or bread date, are traditionally grown and eaten often with yogurt or other milk products.

In the U.S. more than 85 percent of the dates grown are a semi-dry variety called the Deglet Noor. It's a pretty good variety, but the main reason for its dominance is that it was the variety most easily available in 1913 when pioneers brought date shoots from Algeria. Deglet Noors, like most dates, are harvested already dried on the tree. They store well and are usually rehydrated before being sold. They are often used for baking.

Only 10 percent of date production is of the Medjool variety, the best-known of the soft dates. The Medjool is large -- up to 3 inches long -- and luscious. It's great for snacking and gift-giving. The Medjool was only introduced here from Morocco in the 1930s. It takes a long time to propagate new trees. Most new date plantings are of this superior variety, which brings a premium price.

I like Medjools but, like many date growers themselves, my favorite is the Halawy, one of the half-dozen or so minor varieties accounting for the last 5 percent of the crop. They don't look special; they're medium to small and more wrinkled than most other dates. The Halawy's light amber to golden flesh has a caramel-like texture and a rich, sweet, distinctive flavor. You rarely find them at mainstream markets but can purchase them by mail order.

On the four stages of dates

DK: Unripe, green dates are said by the Arabs to be in the kimri stage.

When they ripen and turn their distinctive color (yellow, red, black or pink), dates are said to be in the khalal stage. Dates in this stage are full-size and sweet, but mostly are still too astringent to my taste and don't make good eating. In the Middle East, however, they're commonly sold this way. In the U.S., khalal dates are sold mostly in Middle Eastern markets. The Barhee variety is the only one sold here in this stage, usually still on the branch.

If you let them sit and mature for a while -- sometimes a week or more -- they mature into the rutab stage when they turn color to light brown and become soft, moist and very delicious with a subtle caramel flavor.

Regular dates, finally, are said to be in the tamar stage, when they're dark brown, fully cured and more blistered in appearance.

On his favorite mail-order sources

1. Four Apostles' Ranch
80-700 Avenue 38, Bermuda Dunes, CA 92203
Phone: (760) 345-6171

Four Apostles' Ranch grows Medjools that are so plump and luscious they're almost translucent, and much too delicate for commercial sales. They're also organic. They sell for almost the same as retail prices in stores, but you'll never find dates like these in a regular store.

2. Oasis Date Gardens
Thermal, CA
Phone: (800) 827-8017 or (760) 399-1068

Oasis Date Gardens is the best place to visit and learn about dates in the Coachella Valley. The shop is right by the highway in Thermal, surrounded by date gardens. They grow high-quality dates and sell the rare, best varieties such as Halawy and Barhee by mail order. 

3. Dates by DeVall
Santa Monica Farmers Market, Santa Monica, CA
Phone: (760) 342-3406

If you want to taste dates in the supremely delicious, very soft rutab stage, try the Dates by DeVall stand at the market on Saturdays in the autumn, just after harvest.

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