When choosing recipes for Food Over 50 we consider three basic criterion: 1) Will it taste good? 2) Will it address our aging health concerns? 3) Is the recipe achievable by the average home cook in an average kitchen? There is one other fact we often consider as well. Is the recipe's main ingredient worthy of an informative and entertaining on-location segment?
This is part of what led us to create our Mediterranean Sweet/Savory Dessert Tray and Date & Bourbon Chantilly Cream for episode #4 about Sweet Things. It also inspired us to document our local date industry here in the Southern California and Arizona desert. We who live in and around the Coachella Valley are known for more than just a music festival. We also happen to be the only growing region in North America where dates are cultivated!
Taking a walk through a garden of mature date palms is like strolling back through time. Most historians agree that the date is the oldest cultivated crop known to man, originating in ancient Mesopotamia more than 8,000 years ago. It's been a staple and nutritiously sweet food source ever since, partly because it enjoys an interesting distinction. Dates ripen to a semi-dry state naturally on the palm, dissimilar to almost any other fruit.
California's Coachella Valley happens to be the only growing region in North America where dates are cultivated.
Dates were first introduced to the arid regions of Mexico and California by the Spanish in 1765, but serious production only began in 1903 with palms from Algeria transplanted to Southern California's desert near Palm Springs, then later to Arizona's Bard Valley bordering on the Colorado River near Yuma. These hot, dry climes are mandatory because dates require at least 2 consecutive months of median temperatures over 100 degrees in order to mature and ripen properly.
Today the Coachella Valley boasts more than 9,000 acres under date palm cultivation, producing over 60 million pounds of ripe sweet fruit each year. For our Sweet Things episode we drove "down valley" to witness the harvest process at Oasis Date Gardens. It really was an experience. And for early November it was a very pleasant afternoon. The thermometer stayed slightly under 100!
In the old days, "palmeros" would brave rickety wooden ladders strapped to the palm trunks in order to ascend as much as 70' in the air. At least three times a year they would climb each palm, once to hand pollinate, then later to shroud or net the maturing date clusters against pests, and finally to harvest the fully ripe, semi-dry fruit. Nowadays the process is less dangerous. Large hydraulic lifts with U-shaped catwalks at the top hoist the workers right up to the crown of fronds for safe, easy access to the crop. They lower the pickings by rope and basket before moving on to the next palm.
Dates were first introduced to the arid regions of Mexico and California by the Spanish in 1765, but serious production only began in 1903.
Because there was so much to document our filming ran a little longer than the harvest crew's workday. As a result, the Oasis Date Garden management let us stay on, unattended, and shoot the rows of statuesque palms as the rays of the setting sun danced through the fronds. Having this old and expansive plantation all to our selves, in the fading light, was very special. By the way, I freely admit we snitched a few ripe dates from the younger, lower palms for our supper. Television production is hungry work!
Nearly 30 different varieties grow in the date gardens of the Coachella and Bard Valleys, including the Barhi, Halawy and Zahidi. Two, however, stand out. They are the Deglet Noor and the Medjool. The Deglets are the workhorse date of the food industry, comprising the majority of U.S. production to naturally sweeten baked goods, cereals and energy bars. On the other hand the big, moist, ultra sweet Medjool is the King of Dates, most often eaten whole, or pitted and stuffed.
Much like pure maple syrup, the date enjoys it's own uniquely sweet flavor profile. This ranges from hints of honey and caramel, depending on the variety, but all dates have a full, rich, dense, earthy sweetness and chewy texture that tastes of the desert.
Sweet is sweet, but refined sugar is nutritionally empty compared with the simple sugars, healthy fiber, vitamins, minerals and high level of antioxidants found in naturally sweet, satisfying and slightly exotic dates. In fact, recent authoritative studies suggest that dates are lower on the glycemic index than other fruits. That's important to anyone with diabetes or elevated A1C.
Oh, and there's something else pretty special about the Coachella Valley date industry. Since 1921 this naturally sweet and healthy bounty has been celebrated at the National Date Festival. A couple of months after Food Over 50 documented the harvest we were invited to the Date Festival by representatives of The Riverside County Fair and The California Date Commission. Like a bunch of potentates, our production crew was chauffeured around the fairgrounds in golf carts, provided multiple interview opportunities with experts from the date industry and invited to the fully catered VIP viewing area for the nights Old School rock concert, headlined by Cheap Trick. I swear this television thing can go to your head if you're not careful!