A date in the desert
March/April 2009 California Country magazine
By Tracy Sellers
Andaloussia Restaurant chef/owner Abdel Lahrach laughs when he says he knows a thing or two about what makes a great date—a great fresh date, that is.
Exotic fruit adds spice to cultural cuisines
Dates grown in the vast desert of California's Coachella Valley are right at home in the flavorful and fragrant cuisine served at Abdel Lahrach's Moroccan restaurant.
At the Andaloussia Restaurant in Sacramento, chef/owner Abdel Lahrach laughs when he says he knows a thing or two about what makes a great date—a great fresh date, that is.
"Growing up in Morocco, they were a staple of my cuisine," he said. "Fresh dates are wonderful to work with because they blend so well with the other flavors of my culture."
Having lived for 26 years in Morocco—a crossroads between Africa, Europe and the Middle East—Lahrach knew immediately what kind of restaurant he wanted to own when he came to America in 1987. He finally realized his dream last year when he opened Andaloussia, where the authentic flavors and fragrances of his homeland mingle with fresh, California-grown ingredients.
Lahrach says the sweet nuances of California dates complement the tart and tangy spices popular in Middle Eastern cuisine. In fact, dates play a key role in Lahrach's signature dish, a traditional Moroccan entrée in which lamb is spiced with curry, saffron and ginger, combined with sautéed dates and finished with a sprinkling of roasted almonds and sesame seeds.
While it may be difficult to imagine a thick-skinned, wrinkly piece of fruit being held in such high regard, dates were already appreciated and commercially cultivated in the Middle East as far back as 4000 B.C. Their popularity later spread to Southeast Asia, North Africa and Spain.
Date palm trees require precise care, says Mark Goulet of Shields Date Garden. Skilled workers called palmeros perform a variety of specialized tasks, including wrapping protective paper cones over the fruit clusters.
Today, the vast desert of California's Coachella Valley is home to one of the largest concentrations of fresh dates in the world. The valley stretches from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, and farmers there work hard to produce some 35 million pounds of the fruit annually. That represents 95 percent of the U.S. crop.
"There's no doubt about it, we are the center of the nation's date industry," said Lorrie Cooper, manager of the California Date Commission. "Nearly a quarter million date palms are planted across the valley."
The arid climate of the Coachella Valley is perfect for dates, which is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture chose it in the 1890s as one of several spots in California and the South to try out the new crop. During that time, researchers introduced offshoots of several varieties obtained from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq. Those experimental plantings proved particularly successful in the Coachella Valley and before long, dates had become a profitable fruit to grow and sell in the area.
Floyd and Bess Shields certainly thought so. They sold their apartment complex in Los Angeles, moved to Palm Desert and staked their career on a little-known fruit with big potential. In 1924 they started their Shields Date Garden along Highway 111 and never looked back.
The late Floyd Shields was a master at growing and selling dates. He used tools including a slide show and a 30-foot-tall knight to attract customers to his roadside date shop. Photo courtesy of Shields Date Garden.
Floyd Shields experimented with growing several different varieties like the Deglet Noor, the most common variety for whole and pitted dates; the Halawy, a sweet, tender date; the Khadrawy, a soft, caramel-like fruit; the Zahidi, an oval-shaped date with dry, firm flesh; and the Medjool, a large, dark, richly flavored date. But his most prolific experiment came with the Blonde and Brunette dates—two varieties that are sold exclusively at Shields Date Garden today.
"He loved coming up with new varieties to share with others," said Mark Goulet, the company's general manager. "His belief was that competition was good and there was enough for everyone. I really think it's one of the main reasons we're still around."
It's a notion that both Floyd and Bess Shields believed in fully and no doubt helped them in building a successful farm, store and bake shop. And it's a credence the two continued to uphold until their deaths—Floyd in 1960 and Bess in 1983. After that the business went through a revolving door of ownership until 2005 when Goulet stepped into the picture.
As owner of the nearby Jewel Date Co., Goulet marketed the fruit for many years. But once he heard the company might be sold, he thought growing the fruit would be a natural progression. And he had an ulterior motive as well: preserving a piece of history—one of the area's last date shops.
At one time at least two dozen date shops lined Highway 111 all the way from Palm Desert to Palm Springs. To make his shop stand out, Floyd Shields constructed a 30-foot knight pointing people from the busy highway to a place where they could sample their first date.
"Mr. Shields called it the guardian of quality," said Goulet. "His belief was, if you are going to experience dates for the first time, they better be of the highest quality."
In addition, Shields presented lectures to his customers on the cultivation of the date. The lectures proved to be a popular draw, leading Shields to incorporate a slide show and recorded soundtrack into a multimedia production. The 15-minute presentation, "The Romance and Sex Life of the Date," modified only slightly over the years, is still shown today in a small theater. It's also available on DVD for anyone interested in the exotic, difficult-to-grow fruit.
"People from all over the world come here with every type of question you can imagine," said Goulet. "The date is actually one of the oldest known cultivated tree crops and one of the least understood of all fruits produced."
Goulet adds that few people realize that the date is one of the most expensive crops to produce—and one of the main reasons for that is the way they reproduce.
Females bear the fruit and males produce pollen, but unfortunately, Mother Nature made no adequate provision to pollinate the female date blooms. Natural pollination by the wind is not efficient, so hand pollination, practiced for thousands of years, is one of man's oldest agricultural techniques. Hand pollination is performed by a dedicated group of skilled workers called palmeros—a Spanish term of respect. Each spring the fearless palmeros must collect pollen from the male trees, then climb all of the female trees and hand pollinate the flowers with powder puff-like applicators.
Palmeros spend about 100 days a year climbing trees that are roughly 80 feet tall.
But the real work comes during harvest season, which occurs between September and December in the Coachella Valley. Among the tall palm trees, palmeros first climb to the very top of a ladder. Then, suspended at the end of a heavy chain harness, they swing around the tree just below the green canopy of leaves, hacking off stalks laden with dates. The palmeros toss the bunches down into large bins, where workers remove the fruit so it can be sent off for processing and packaging.
In addition to pollinating, pruning and harvesting, palmeros must also wrap inverted paper cones over the fruit clusters to protect them from damaging rains and to keep out insects, rodents and birds. At the Shields date orchards, palmeros spend a total of about 100 days a year climbing up and down palm tress that are roughly 80 feet tall. It is definitely not work for the faint of heart.
"Many of the employees who work within the industry provide a unique job skill that can't be found at a local EDD office," said the date commission's Cooper. "The palmero requires specific skills that are traditionally passed down from generation to generation."
Cooper adds that approximately 2,500 local jobs are tied directly to the date industry, which has become vital to the valley's economic standing. Dates are number two in total category value among agriculture statistics for the Coachella Valley.
And after being in the area for so long, the fruit is finally gaining a fan base among chefs—not just in Southern California but throughout the state. While most people think of dates in sweets like breads and cookies, chefs are leading the way in introducing their customers to new ways to enjoy the fruit.
At the date commission's annual professional culinary competition last year, chefs used the fruit's candy-sweet qualities to create a variety of menu items. In fact, the winning dish featured filet mignon paired with dates. The key, chefs say, is to be adventurous—something Lahrach tries to impart to his customers as well.
"People here in the States aren't as familiar with dates as I am because of my background," he said. "But I always tell them, once they try them, they'll be hooked."
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and associate producer for California Country TV. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.