Friday, February 18, 2005

Start with some tall trees.

Deglet Noor Tree
Originally uploaded by foodchronicles.
Dates. To some they are the food of the gods, to others they are a strange little "dried" fruit.

The are several varieties of dates grown in the desert regions of the US. The tree pictured is of the Deglet Noor variety. It is the most recognized date around. It is sold in supermarkets nationwide in small containers or sometimes in bulk sections of a produce department. It is sold whole, pitted, chopped, diced and extruded. It is a very versatile little fruit.

Other varieties of date are: Khadrawi, Black, Barhi, Honey and Medjool are the most popular. Most people I know love medjools.

So how does one grow a date? It begins with the tree of course. A date palm takes 13 years to produce dates in any real quantity. The trees produce a crop once a year. Care must be taken to ensure you have a crop to harvest in late Spetember or early October.

The heros of the date business are the Palmeros. They take great pride in keeping their trees. Six times a year they climb to the top of those tall, tall trees to do maintenance and upkeep to ensure a good crop. In January and February they de-thorn the trees. In March and April, pollination takes place. In May and June the seed pods are covered with paper or gauze sacks to protect the birds from getting to the dates. In July and August the trees are checked for good growth and moisture levels. In September and October the harvest takes place. Then in Novemeber and December the trees are "cleaned up" and readied for the new season to come.

How tall? Some can be up to 100 feet tall. Wow! How do they climb up to the top? Ladders. If you take a ride around the desert region - Thermal, Indio, Salton Sea - you see the trees. Look way up to the top and you'll see ladders attached to the trees near the tops. These are added as the trees grow. A standard tree ladder only goes so far - 50 to 70 feet - but these trees continue to grow so the Palmeros have improvised by adding ladders to them. This way they can get to the top and get their job done.

It's worth a drive to the desert at least once to see the trees. Along the way you'll see other farming operations, as the Coachella Valley is home to some of California's finest vegetable and fruit growers.

I'll talk more about dates, how they're processed, how to cook with them, and why they are so good for you next time!