Incredibly Delicious Dates from California

Medjool dates from Rancho Meladuco in the Coachella Valley

In the desert, the sight of a date palm is almost always an indicator that an oasis is at hand. Freshwater and ripe dates have always been welcome sights for travelers. Although an oasis isn’t generally the end of the trip, it provides a short but refreshing respite from the stress of the travel. In this challenging year that is 2020, a box of these amazing handpicked dates might provide that same sort of relief. Clearly, we’re not done with the challenges at hand. But a few of those dates from Rancho Meladuco could help you get through.

I first met Joan Smith out in San Francisco a few years ago at a Fancy Food Show. Although I’d stopped at her booth to taste the dates, we actually bonded first over dogs—we both love them and we had both had a much-loved pup pass away in the not too distant past (you can see a drawing of her dog, Rocky, on the inside cover of the box). The dates, though, are what has kept us connected. I could eat the whole box in a matter of hours if I’m not careful.

In a world filled with worry and antipathy, dates are a happy event on pretty much every level. They have a long history, going back over 8000 years. They’re in the Bible and Koran. Many Biblical historians theorize that the “Land of Milk and Honey” should, more accurately, be taken to mean “Milk and date honey.” Dates today are a staple in every part of life in the Middle East, from Morocco, to Israel, on to the Persian Gulf, and everywhere in between.

How did Joan end up with a date business? Granted, she’d grown up around agriculture—her father had some experience ranching when she was growing up near Bakersfield—but the dates are a relatively recent development for her:

I’m a CPA by background and no formal background in Ag or Food. The Date Farm idea came to mind nearly 15 years ago as a way to plant a salt-tolerant, low maintenance desert crop at our ranch (a nearly 100-year-old waterfowl hunting club) to help the ranch support itself. I found a White Paper produced on how to start a Date Farm, printed it, filed it away, and kind of forgot about it . . . I didn’t try my first date until several years before I started our farm. It was a complete surprise to me that they tasted the way they do.

Five years later, she’s growing, packing, and shipping some of the most delicious dates in the country. If you’re not familiar with dates, here are a few facts from Joan:

Dates are a dry fruit, not a DRIED fruit. Dates gradually dehydrate on the tree, the sugars concentrate, the tannins dissipate, and the low moisture makes them self-preserving. Most commercial date processors don’t like handling the higher moisture dates the way we do at Rancho Meladuco. Most want the dates harvested when they are drier so they can clean and sort them by machine and pack high volumes. They are able to rehydrate the dry dates later with steam and heat. Moist dates like ours are very fragile—they tear and squash easily, and they can ferment or spoil if not stored properly. They have to be cleaned and processed carefully and slowly. But we want our dates harvested when they are perfectly ripe—which for us means still soft.

By the way, Joan taught me that it takes over a hundred days at temperatures over 100°F to make for dates of this caliber!

What to do with dates this delicious? Add them to salads and sandwiches. Drop a few into a tagine. Stuffing them works beautifully for an appetizer. Just cut it in half and take out the pit—in its place, put a walnut half or an almond. They’re really superb stuffed with Koeze peanut butter from Grand Rapids or the Georgia Grinders’ almond butter we have at the Deli. Great with goat cheese or cream cheese, especially the artisan offerings from the Creamery. Really fine with feta. Add to smoked chicken salad with some of that awesome smoked chicken from the Roadhouse. You can dip the dates in chocolate, or just stick a square of dark chocolate inside each date. Add a few pitted chopped dates to one of those watermelon and feta salads I wrote about a few weeks ago. Sprinkle onto gelato. Date shakes have been all the rage out west in recent years. For a more savory option, stuff a date with avocado, squeeze on some lime, and sprinkle a pinch of fleur de sel and then some pimenton de la vera (smoked Spanish paprika). You can also wrap them with bacon and run ’em under the broiler for a few minutes. Or serve them alongside some of the great Prosciutto di Parma we get from Pio Tosini in Italy.

In Feast: Food of the Islamic World, author Anissa Helou writes extensively about the date: “. . . the most important fruit in Islam.” She says dates are “the first food people eat when they break the long day’s fast during the month of Ramadan . . .” Since we all “break-fast” each day, Anissa’s comments got me thinking about a new morning ritual. How about, I wondered to myself, a daily, AM, date with coffee? Literally. I decided to try a new tradition while I was working on this. I might stick with it. (I once heard Carlo Petrini, who started Slow Food, say that “tradition is innovation that has worked.”) Whatever else you have going, sit down with one of these really amazing dates and a good cup of coffee (the new 2020 Holiday Blend is out!). Sip, nibble a small bit of the date, savor, breathe deep, reflect, repeat. In just the few days I’ve done it, my morning date with coffee has reminded me that, although I could eat the entire date in one bite (stopping only to spit out the pit), I can, instead, savor it in small snippets. The sweetness goes great with the coffee. It puts good thoughts in my head while I journal. I’m doing it right now, this morning, as I write. The date’s delicate deliciousness helps push the worry out of my mind for a few minutes as well. And it reminds me of the beauty of the world and brings beauty to the beginning of my day.

For more with dates, check out the Date, Fig and Pomegranate Babka the Bakehouse is making for Mail Order, as well as the Date, Sesame, and Almond Rugelach.

P.S. Joan was reading about the new “Humility: A Humble, Anarchistic Inquiry” pamphlet which prompted her to share: “I went to high school with Patrick Lencioni [who is referenced in the pamphlet]! He was a senior when I was a freshman. We attended Garces Memorial High School in Bakersfield California, a tiny private Catholic school of 500 students. He was a leader and great guy back then.”

Order dates from the Deli