A symphony of barking dogs welcome visitors to Robert Lower’s folksy, far-flung 11-acre Flying Disc Ranch in rural Thermal. The dogs sound a little hoarse. Visitors drop by Lower’s date farm frequently these early spring days. They’re eager to sample his dates. “Last fall [the harvest] was one of the best for date flavor,” Lower says, as his associate, Christina Kelso, shushed Claire, a vigilant, dusty brown yapper. “The Barhis tasted like vanilla.”
Some visitors’ aspirations are limited to elevating the taste of their date shakes.
Others hope to add a sweet dimension to traditional Easter and Passover goodies. That would include the Lebanese mamool, a semolina date-filled cookie, assorted Easter cakes, stuffed dates, and of course, Passover’s must, charoset, a sweet paste sometimes enhanced with dates.
March is also prime time for buying female date tree blossoms at farmers markets. “We sell them as floral,” said Lower. “The blossoms are very decorative and smell like Queen Scheherazade’s perfume.”
Lower’s date repertoire extends beyond the blossoms and the Barhis (succulent and tender fruit from Iraq), often nicknamed “the queen of dates.” He specializes in dates that might be short on recognition — the sweet Medjool gets most of the supermarket love — but are long on flavor. They include the Zahidi (light and buttery), Dayri (strong, “datey”), Amber (sweet cinnamon), Khadrawi (chewy caramel), along with his own variety the Ciré, a reddish granule seedling date named after the first initials of his four children. He also offers seedlings for other date gems, including the Honey Ball.
Small growers such as Lower, who, along with Kelso, are certified permaculturists (dedicated to sustainable and self-sufficient ecosystems), straddle the line between profitability and bringing lesser known date varieties to consumers via their farm or farmers market. It’s a struggle.
“The market’s changed dramatically since I bought Flying Ranch in the summer of ’79,” says Lower. He gazes at a neat row of date-producing palms, of which he has 450, and reflects, “It used to be you could sell 30 palms for $1,800 each. Now, the nursery business is gone, it’s everyone for themselves. The only way to establish yourself is through quality and date variety.”
Like most fruits we consume, dates are harvested when they are soft and juicy. Only a few, such as the Barhi can be harvested before they’re ripe. Known in Arabic as khalal, the unripened fruit is slightly astringent. They’re crunchy, and are a good addition to salads and savory dishes. It’s not uncommon in the Middle East or in ethnic markets here in the desert to see a full bunch of khalal dates hanging outside to encourage natural ripening. “It’s an inexact science,” says Kelso. “Unless dates are harvested right on the edge of ripeness, it’s tough to say if they will ripen at home. Best to buy any date variety exactly the way you plan to eat them.”
Fruit of Our Forebears
Dates invoke a sense of antiquity and desert culture. They’re mentioned frequently in the Bible, the Quran, and other ancient texts. But it was the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s desire to create productive acreage out of barren desert that brought the first dates to the Coachella Valley about 100 years ago. Along with citrus and almonds, dates are drought resistant, a welcome trait here.
David Fairchild, a botanist and plant explorer for the USDA, is credited with first investigating date seeds in Baghdad in the 1890s. Walter Swingle, his colleague at the USDA, tested date-growing conditions in Algeria and found them similar to the Coachella Valley. The viability of seeds was suspect, so Swingle brought back 60-pound cuttings from those Middle Eastern date palms, and transplanted them here.
Vince Samons is principal superintendent of agriculture of the University of California, Riverside’s Agricultural Operations.Its National Date Palm Germplasm collection at the Coachella Valley Agricultural Research Station is located in Thermal. Samons’ connection to the commodity is personal as well as professional: He married into the family of an early date pioneer. His wife’s great uncle, Edward Duvall, brought seeds from the USDA to the desert around 1910, to great success. Members of the Gillette (as in razors) family were early date growers whose farm in Palm Desert was sited where Palm Desert High School stands today.
Although run by some major agricultural players (Jewel Date Co., the parent company of the Shields and Oasis date gardens, and Sun Date), the U.S. date industry remains relatively small. There are only approximately 100 growers. “We’re talking around 10,000 acres total, 12,000 if you include Arizona,” says Robert Krueger, a UC, Riverside horticulturist and curator who works alongside Samons. “Of that, 70 percent are Deglet Noor, the firm, not-as-sweet-as Medjool variety. The other 30 percent is Medjool.”
The lack of commercial variety is shamed by the UC, Riverside collection. Rugged, wild-looking mandarin orange trees hug the dusty dirt road that divides the large silver shed from the date farm. The collection of dates is the largest in the U.S. There are 43 edible varieties, samples of which are housed in shallow, cellophane-wrapped wooden trays. The ebony-colored Abada, Taj, and Black Sphinx dates are eye-catching.
“We farm for the USDA with the objective to keep these varieties alive, cut the shoots, and replant so the collection continues,” says Samons, eyeing some of the 727 palms representing 118 distinct genetic date types. He and Krueger are realistic about the fact that 90 percent of what’s grown here won’t ever see the light of day. “But [if we] get more information out there on health benefits, including antioxidant properties … that might change,” said Krueger.
“In any event it’s not a business for wimps,” says Samons, He hoists an imposing machetelike date knife, “Whacking the thorns from date palms requires an experienced palmero [date palm groomer]. And pollination from male to female trees is labor intensive. [That’s why most growers plant male trees on the west, or windy, side to get help from nature.] Pollination means climbing up palms with a hand-held aerator.”
Lower and other indie date farmers perform most of these chores themselves. Doug Adair, a spry, often barefoot elder of Pato’s Dream Date Garden, bought his five-acre farm (nine date palms, a house, and garage) in 1977 for $15,000. He believes dates are worth the effort. “I love farming, farm labor, and consider it all part of being a good steward of the land,” he says, and good he is: Adair’s heirloom Tarbazal dates are a meditation on caramel, rich and satisfying, and harvested from shoots first developed by M.R. Sheets and Jess Wise near Mecca (California) in the early 20th century. Once the largest variety in the valley, Tarbazals were sold at the historic Valerie Jean Dates on Highway 99.
You probably won’t find them on local menus. You will find date-appointed appetizers, salads, mains, and desserts, most all a salute to the Deglet and Medjool varieties. Microsized local hotspots such as Luscious Lorraine’s Organic Juice and Food Bar in Palm Desert serves up a granola cruncher’s dream date shake — it’s made with date paste from Flying Disc Ranch, Maca (an Incan superfood), and almond milk — while the Ace Hotel’s luxe version targets urbanists with vanilla gelato.
State Fare Bar + Kitchen at The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage decorates its Coachella pizza with local dates, goat cheese, roasted garlic, and crispy kale. But to fully explore the date’s extreme versatility, Shields Date Garden’s Cafe is your one-stop shop. For breakfast, there are date pancakes made with date butter; lunch features Shields signature salad with spinach, dates, walnuts, pears, bleu cheese, and dried cranberries; for dinner, the signature date burger hosts bacon, dates, and blue cheese. Accessorize your meal with a date shake. It’s the law.
If that’s a bit rich, stop and smell the flowers, a simple bouquet of Lower’s date blossoms. This simple spring gesture nods to the date’s desert distinction, a divine status bearing a sweet and delectable scent.
Date Walnut Bar
(courtesy Christina Kelso, Flying Disc Ranch)
Date paste (a mix of dry and soft dates, can be purchased at markets or through growers)
Take equal parts date paste and sprouted walnuts. Shape the paste into a rectangle and place on a flat surface, such as a cookie sheet. Chop the walnuts, pour them on top of the date paste, and roll over the mixture with a heavy, marble rolling pin. (If you don’t have one, press the nuts into paste with your hands.) Cut the mixture into 3-inch squares.
* FOR SPROUTED WALNUTS:
Put shelled, California walnuts into a bowl and cover with pure, filtered water. Let stand for 12 hours. Drain nuts and rinse well. Dehydrate using a dehydrator (no hotter than 95 degrees) or put nuts on a cookie sheet covered with a screen and lay out in the sun until thoroughly dry. (Sprouting nuts and seeds makes them more digestible and delicious.)