Ode to Dates
When I try to express to people just how much I love dates, here’s what I say: I might even love them more than chocolate. That’s certainly a strong statement coming from me. An apple a day keeps the doctor away (so they say), a square (or two) of dark chocolate keeps it balanced, and 5 dates a day… keeps me happy.
When I knew I was heading to London for Food Blogger Connect in early June, I did all of my characteristically sweet research, compiling lists of addresses to find the city’s best and most interesting chocolate, cupcakes, ice cream and artisanal sweets. Above all of those was one word, in bold, underlined, with stars around it and arrows pointing to it. This was one address I was not going to miss while in the UK (thanks to Romy‘s sweet London roundup). And so, in addition to the chocolate shopping I did, I made sure to go to Bateel. Bateel ? Picture a bright, clean minimalistic shop, narrow and long, its impeccable cases filled with items neatly lined up. A chocolate shop ? Nope. What if I told you it was a date shop ? “The world’s only gourmet date experience.” You can see Alfred Hunter below right, preparing a box of these delicate fruits for me with utmost care, contributing to this unique and truly delicious experience.
I can’t say for sure when I tasted my very first date; I suppose I didn’t have that one powerful moment of enlightenment. As far I can remember, I have loved dates… There were my weekly visits to the markets when living in Paris, to Whole Foods when in Boston and to Kalustyan’s when in New York City, always searching for the big red box (Medjool dates from California) or other varieties from Israel, Jordan and Tunisia. My oldest memory of dates is perhaps in Montpellier (France), where I can picture myself sitting in a salon de thé with Françoise Pouget, olive oil expert, hearing about her latest culinary adventures — my teapot remained full, but the bowl of dates served with it quickly emptied. I remember calling Kadouri & Sons in New York City’s Lower East Side when I was at Duke University, letting them know I couldn’t find dates as good as theirs. Thus began the shipments of dates from Hester Street south to North Carolina. There was also the 5 kilogram box of small, dark Zagora dates I schlepped for a month when backpacking around Morocco (part of it went into granola I made for Dorie Greenspan). And of course my French mother-in-law’s colorfully stuffed dates every year at Christmas time. And now, this education on Saudi dates will too remain imbedded in my mind.
Tasting notes, one by one…
My favorite: the Barhi. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is the sweetest and stickiest of the bunch. Truly a super sweet date, small, round and squishy if you try to pull apart the flesh to remove the pit. I first discovered this date at New York City’s Fairway Market many years ago; New Yorkers will have to let me know if they still carry them. You can just pop these in your mouth like candy.
My next two favorites from my Bateel selection were the Khola and Sokari. Khola dates are a golden brown, also very soft and sweet, their skin a bit loose over the flesh, which has a definite toffee flavor to it, almost syrupy. Delicate but not sticky like the Barhi, they are often paired with coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker, so I’ll just try them with coffee ice cream). The Sokari is firm and chewy, with a slightly caramel flavor similar to honeycomb. This is actually Alfred’s favorite date (and apparently quite popular among Arabs), which he recommends soaking in milk to soften. I didn’t find them too hard at all, and liked the difference in texture – a bit harder with its recognizably creased skin. Sokari dates are also known as Royal Dates.
Alfred also introduced me to the Sekki date, which has an amazing mix of textures and flavors and a very unique appearance. On one end, it is beige, hard, almost crunchy and quite sweet; the other side is dark, soft and midly sweet. Next to the Sekki below right is the Khidri, known for its complex flavor and an almost smoky aftertaste. I liked this date for its texture, soft and chewy. Alfred recommended the Agwa date, known to Muslims as the Holy Date. With almost black skin and a distinct flavor (not nearly as sweet as the others), it reminded me of a cross between a raisin and a prune.
There is certainly a date for every palate, and Bateel has over 20 varieties, coming from their 75,000 palm trees on plantations in Saudi Arabia. They also have dates stuffed with lemon peel, orange peel, pecans or almonds. And then there are the chocolate dipped dates, which of course got my attention. A typical snack of mine is to replace the pit of a Medjool date with a small square of dark chocolate and top it with sea salt (fleur de sel or Maldon). Bateel’s confections were more complex, and I of course tried a few, including the date stuffed with a roasted almond, coated in chocolate and rolled in crispy feuilletine flakes (below, middle right). Their date chocolates menu is worth a look, as I have never seen anything quite like it. That said, with dates of such a high quality and so delicious on their own, I would rather stick to the pure, fresh dates themselves. And I still wonder why I only brought back one (even if rather large) box to Zürich.
But wait, there’s more ! Date tapenade, bars, cookies, jams and mustard too. A warning on the latter: date mustard is either considered a liquid or a weapon, and will be confiscated from your carry-on luggage, as Jamie of Life’s a Feast can unfortunately confirm. Then there were date bonbons (hard candies) and other confections (like calissons from Aix-en-Provence) and nougat, a favorite of mine. Made with lavender honey from Provence, almonds, pistachios and of course dates, the nougat was excellent, soft and chewy, if a tad sticky.
One last word, if you have a chance to visit the Bateel shop in London or one of its many locations in the Middle East (they clearly need more in Europe), be sure to ask about their Rhutab dates. These are picked when semi-ripe and frozen right away. A whole other taste sensation, and truly divine. Next time I’m in London, you’ll know where to find me… trying all the other date varieties at Bateel, putting together the next series of tasting notes for you !
Have you ever had fresh dates before ? From where ? What is your favorite kind ?
76 New Bond Street **
** The shop was originally at 138 New Bond Street when I wrote about it above. It moved to the current location in the spring of 2011 and is now a boutique and café. Bateel products can also be found at Harrods in Knightsbridge.