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Medjool: A Date to Remember

Ancient cultures called the date palm "the tree of life," and used all parts of the tree, from the trunk to the leaves.
Susan Russo for NPR /
Ancient cultures called the date palm "the tree of life," and used all parts of the tree, from the trunk to the leaves.

My parents recently celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary. Like all marriages, they've had their for-better-and-for-worse days, but one thing they haven't had is secrecy between them.

Until now. And it's all my fault.

I sent my mother some fresh Medjool dates, and she's hiding them in the refrigerator behind a bottle of Limoncello that is rarely moved.

I can't blame her; there are few foods as delectable as fresh Medjools. Considered the diamond of dates, they are prized for their large size, extraordinary sweetness and chewy texture.

I used to think of dates as Christmas food, stuffed with walnuts and dusted with confectioners' sugar. They were good, but I would only turn to them once the supply of Christmas cookies was exhausted.

That changed on Oct. 6, 2004 — the day that date samples were available at the farmers' market in Santa Monica. Walking by the table, I instinctively took a piece and walked on. I took one bite, turned around and walked back upstream to buy a two-pound box of the biggest, softest dates I had ever seen: Medjools, for which the season starts in September and continues through November.

Medjool dates are deep amber-brown and have a slightly crinkly skin that shimmers from natural sugar crystals. Bite into one, and your teeth sink into satisfyingly sticky flesh that tastes of rich caramel, hints of wild honey and a touch of cinnamon. Melt-in-your-mouth Medjools are so luscious they taste as if they have been warmed in an oven.

Dates are considered the oldest cultivated fruit in the world: Fossils show date palm trees thrived 50 million years ago. The fruit of the date palm was eaten as far back as 5,000-6,000 B.C.E., and they've been cultivated for about 6,000 years in the Middle East.

Ancient cultures called the date palm "the tree of life," and used all parts of the tree, from the trunk to the leaves. Dates are still a staple source of nutrition for nomadic peoples because of their high carbohydrate content, high potassium levels and easy portability.

Hundreds of varieties of dates are grown throughout the world, about 12 of which can be found in the United States. They are classified as soft, semidry or dry. Soft dates such as the Medjool, Khadrawy, Halawy and Barhi have a sweet, creamy flesh because of their high moisture content. Semidry dates such as Deglet Noor and Zahidi have less moisture, sweetness and chewiness. Dry dates such as the Thoory, which is called the "bread" date, have rather hard, dry skin and very little moisture

Most U.S. dates — 95 percent — are grown in California's Coachella Valley, a two-hour drive northeast of San Diego. Dates grow well there and in parts of southwestern Arizona because they like hot heads and wet feet. That is, they grow best in areas with high heat, low humidity and an abundant supply of groundwater.

Dates have been in California since the 18th century, when Spanish missionaries planted date palms around their missions. It wasn't until 1927, however, that Medjools arrived. That year, disease was destroying Morocco's Medjool crop. Walter Swingle, an American horticulturalist, brought 11 Medjool offshoots back to California from Morocco. Nine of the eleven survived and have become the source of the millions of Medjool dates grown today.

Among the Medjool's many nicknames, "king of dates" is most fitting. Once reserved for Moroccan royalty and their guests, they were a precious confection and remain so today. Like many delicacies, Medjools are pricey because their cultivation is a complex and labor-intensive process.

Although date palms are naturally pollinated by wind, growers must hand-pollinate each tree to ensure adequate yield. A worker climbs the same 40- to 50-foot-high tree many times during the Medjool season. First, he trims the tree's dangerously sharp 4- to 5-inch-long thorns. Then he removes most of the dates to increase the air circulation and sunlight they need to reach optimum size.

When the remaining dates reach their full size, he will protect them from birds, insects and occasional rain by covering them with burlap bags or nylon netting. Since dates do not ripen simultaneously, he must climb the tree several more times to harvest them.

Soft dates such as the Medjool are so delicate that most are picked individually by hand rather than in large clusters. I try to remember this when I'm shelling out $10 a pound for Medjools at the farmers' market.

This season's crop is currently available at supermarkets and online. They range from $6 to $10 per pound, depending on their size and quality, and come in grades: choice, soft, fancy, large and jumbo. In this case, bigger is better. Splurge and go for the jumbo.

To store Medjools, leave them covered on the counter for up to a week or place them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to six months.

There is one caveat regarding Medjool dates: They are addictive. Eating too many of these sugary jewels can induce a hyperglycemic laziness (this is a benign condition which a brief nap will remedy).

So I offer you the following three suggestions: 1. Pace yourself. 2. Leave the pits in full view so you can keep count of how many you've eaten. 3. Ask somebody else in your house to find a good hiding place for the remaining dates and swear not to tell you.

I have now blown my mom's cover, and her box of dates has no doubt been found and its contents ransacked. I have mailed her another box. She tells me there is an old bottle of champagne in the wine cellar and there is plenty of room behind it.

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Susan Russo