Almost since Bernard Johnson first began growing date palms in the Coachella Valley in 1902, the arrival of dates in Southern California markets has been a sure sign of early autumn.
The melting yang to fall's crisp apple and pear yin, dates are known to most Americans only as a baking ingredient--usually in the form of hard, dried-out bits. Almost half of the annual production goes into processing.
We, the lucky few, can taste just how wonderful a fresh date can be. Actually, there are many different kinds of dates--maybe as many as 200 worldwide, estimates Perry Hedin of the California Date Administrative Committee, an industry marketing board. In the Coachella Valley, where almost all the dates in the United States are grown, there are more than 20 varieties.
The vast majority of California's date harvest--90% to 95%--is the Deglet Noor, a name that translates as "Date of Light." The next leading variety is the Medjool, accounting for roughly 5%.
Deglet Noors are firm-fleshed, the preferred date for processing. A good Medjool, recently picked, is almost liquid inside. Medjools, up to three times the size of Deglets, fetch a premium price, but some date growers say it's the Deglet that they like best.
"Personally, I like the taste of Deglets and I think that's probably what most people in the industry would say," says Albert Keck, vice president of operations for Hadley Date Gardens, one of the Valley's leading growers. "The taste of a Medjool is not quite as rich or deep as a Deglet. The Deglet seems sweeter and richer in a caramel-type sense. The Medjool is a sweet date, but there's maybe a hint of licorice in the sweetness."
Hedin says it's "like the difference between Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples. There's definitely a difference, but it's hard to describe exactly what it is. I like the Deglet better than the Medjool, but my very favorite date is a Zahidi. It's somewhere between the Deglet and the Medjool in taste and texture."
Although this year got off to a slow start with a long cool spring, summer in the Coachella Valley was hot and this year's crop looks to be of average size--roughly 41 million pounds.