On my recent trip to Europe I had breakfast in Dubai and the local specialty was fresh dates with cereals and milk. It was a little bit unexpected to me, but as you know I love to look at different cultures, their history and traditions to explore. As I nibbled on fresh dates I realised how sweet, fruity, nutty and chewy their flavour was – they have a similar flavour profile of figs, but without the seeds inside. I found them delicious and walked away with plenty of great ideas on how to use them in beverages.
It is a well known fact that dates are one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world. Due to this fact it is believed that it originates from Mesopotamia in modern days of Iraq as well as in Egypt. The archaeological and written evidence comes from several different ancient kingdoms and empires of a middle east. We have to credit traders who spread dates around South West Asia, Northern Africa and Spain, from where it spread to the new world (Mexico and California) in 1765, and we all thank them for it.
Date palms take 4-8 years after planting before the first harvest. Mature date palms produce somewhere in between 70-140 kg of dates per harvest season. The seeds of the fruits are used as animal feed and the oil is used in cosmetics and soaps. The wood from the palm is widely used for furniture and boats, while the sap is fermented into alcohol.
There is over 3000 varieties of dates found all around the world and they fall under three broad types – soft, semi-dry and dry with the differentiation according to glucose, sucrose and fructose content.
Dates below are the most popular:
Medjool – large and delicious with a toffee like flavour
Barhi – yellow dates from Iraq with thicker flash
Dayri – slim and black dates
Halawy – probably the sweetest dates, small in size
Deglet Noor – one of the best varieties with a semi dry flavour commonly used in cooking
Hayani – gentle dates of red to black colours with origins from Egypt
Migraf – large dates of golden amber colour from Yemen
Iteema – extremely sweet with an big oblong shape, originating from Algeria
You will find the best dates during the harvesting period between late autumn and early winter. Deglet Noor from North Africa and the Middle East, the Medjool dates from Jordan or California are expensive but worth it for their delicious toffee-liked taste. Make sure that you purchase organic dates for its flavours. Any dates that look perfect by colours might contain sulphur and that does not help with flavours.
So how are dates used in the culinary world? Dates have gained a lot of respect for its nutritious values so it is not a surprise that dates are the staple food on iftar tables during Ramadan. Dates are mainly consumed in fresh or dried forms, however they are used as snacks, stuffings for meats, in dessert recipes as well as in smoothies for their level of sweetness and fruity flavour and nutty notes. Date syrup is well known across cooking. In China, dates are smoked and used as a sweetener in traditional medicine. Smoked dates are a great delicacy and snack.
Here is a recipe to sip on during a hot summer or cold winter’s night:
50 ml Cognac (VS or VSOP)
25 ml Fresh lemon juice
15 ml Date syrup*
- Combine all ingredients in tall glass over ice and gently stir.
- Top up with sparkling water.
- Drink recipe can be heated topped up with hot water instead of sparkling to make a hot toddy.
1 kg date
1.25 kg water
1 vanilla pod
1 cinnamon stick
- De-seed the dates and rinse them in water.
- Put de-seeded dates, vanilla and cinnamon in a pot with water and bring to a boil, once boiled bring to lowest heat and let it cook for another 15 min.
- Take out the vanilla and cinnamon and pour boiled dates with water into blender and blend into pure texture.
- Let it cool down in room temperature once cooled down, store in a jar and keep refrigerated.
Bartender’s note: “It is said that Iraq has more than 100 kinds of dates available, can you imagine the flavour opportunities?”