While you can easily find dates year-round, for a small window around the beginning of fall, you can find bunches of bright yellow fresh dates at select farmers markets around Southern California.
“They’re actually ripe dates,” says Christina Kelso, who works with farmer Robert Lower at his Flying Disc Ranch farm in Thermal. It’s simply a stage of ripeness, known as khalal in Arabic, she notes. A variety of date called Bahri are firm and smooth, with a crunch similar to an apple, lightly spiced and with a mild sweetness tempered with just a bit of tang (other date varieties grown in Southern California, such as Medjool or Deglet Noor, are too astringent to enjoy at this stage). “It’s a bit of an acquired taste,” Kelso says.“To me, they taste like sugarcane.”
Left at room temperature, the dates will continue to mature, the yellow skin taking on spots of brown, and eventually softening to an almost caramel-like texture, sweetening in flavor as they slowly take on the wrinkled, darkened amber hues most of us are familiar with. Once ripe, the dates can keep, refrigerated, for months.
The fruit is native to the Middle East and North Africa; its adopted home in Southern California is the Coachella Valley. “All of our dates grow within probably a 20-mile radius,” says Kelso. “There used to be over 100 date farms, but over the years it’s consolidated. You can count the number of farms now on two hands.” Lower, one of the few farmers, has been growing dates since 1974, and founded Flying Disc Ranch in 1979, and grows at least 10 varieties of dates. He’s also one of the original farmers at the Santa Monica farmers market, selling at the market since its opening day in the summer of 1981.
For several weeks, generally from Labor Day through the first week or two of October, you can find fresh dates by the bunch available from a handful of Southern California farms. “They’re quintessential Southern California,” says Kelso. “We have them for such a limited time, and you can really only get them here.” While they do ship to places as far as New York, fresh dates “are something most people never get to try,” says Kelso.
As for uses, the dates make a great snack, and work well as part of a cheese plate or incorporated in salads. “[Famers market manager] Laura Avery recently called them an edible centerpiece,” notes Kelso. “I thought that was a beautiful way to describe them. They’re so stunning.”