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Why fresh-picked dates are better than the
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Winning Converts to Dates
Asians Like Them Chewy, Middle Easterners Favor Soft

Over the past 16 years, Douglas Adair has turned a large subgroup of Californians into fans of a fruit that was once obscure to them. The Californians in question are Asian Americans and the fruit is the date.

Adair has a grove of dates called Pato’s Dream in the Coachella Valley desert near Palm Springs. He has been selling dates at farmers markets -- and handing out samples -- since 1980. His best market is the one in Alhambra, which has a largely Asian clientele. Even though there are no dates in China, Korea or Vietnam, shoppers from those countries have grown to love them, he says.

The firmer, chewier dates do best with Asians, Adair says. Softer dates are favored by the crowd at the Fullerton market in Orange County, which includes a large number of Middle Easterners, Adair says.

Caucasian Americans tend to favor a harder date, weaned as they are on supermarkets deglet noors -- the classic "pocket date," dry enough and firm enough that you can carry it around in your pocket. Farmers markets have created an opening for a greater variety.

When growing dates for wholesalers, farmers generally wait until every last date on a bunch ripens then pick the whole thing. Most of the dates on a bunch -- which can range from five to 40 pounds -- will have completely dried up by then. That’s how date packers like it. "For ease in handling, they want them hard as rock. They will later rehydrate them, so they don’t care," explains Adair.

When growing for farmers markets, in contrast, harvesters take several pickings off of each bunch, taking only the ones that are just ripe with each pass. "We’ll have dates that are so soft you can hardly handle them without mashing them," says Adair. "They’ll end up in little cups and trays at the farmers market. They have a melt-in-your-mouth quality."

The date harvest season can run into the new year, but smaller growers usually have their crop off the trees by December in time for the biggest season for date sales: Christmas. Competition among the small group of 20 or so Coachella date growers who sell at farmers markets can be a bit intense this time of year. But the growers try to share the market, trading alternate weekends in some cases, Adair says.

"All of us know each other. We’re all neighbors. Usually we’ll try not to crowd each other," says Adair. "We’re a community of fellow growers. We’re in competition with each other but there are plenty of customers out there for all of us. To me, there’s an unlimited market once people know about real dates. They’re so delicious and good for you and versatile in cooking and baking and just eating."

Another of the Coachella Valley date growers, David Davall, of Davall Date Gardens, grows two varieties with a colorful history. Both were first planted in the Coachella Valley in 1916 by Davall’s great great uncle.

Davall says his uncle couldn't afford to buy date cultivars from Algeria. So he obtained 250 seeds of wild dates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, grew them out and selected the six most promising. He then grew those to fruition and settled on the two best, which Davall sells to this day as empress and honey dates.

The honey is sweet and creamy, the empress chewier, with a caramel flavor, says Vicki Davall, David’s wife. The Davalls sell their dates at half a dozen markets in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles Counties.

Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef