The Date palm has been revered within Jewish mythology as a symbol of beauty. Its name in Hebrew is tamar and we know that Solomon's half- sister, known for her beauty, was also called Tamar. But the date palm is not just a wonderful tree with delicious fruit, it also has an amazing story stretching back 2,000 years.
In the 1970s, Herod's palace was excavated at Masada and archaeologists were excited when they unearthed a 2,000 year old jar holding some date seeds. The perfectly dry atmosphere had preserved the seeds so well that a scientist Dr Elaine Solowey, who specialises in medicinal and rare plants, planted three of the seeds on Tu b'Shvat. Just six weeks later, one of those ancient seeds sprouted and at the last report, it had nearly a dozen fronds. It has been called Methusela after the oldest person in the Bible. But it embodies a whole group of palms - the Judean date palm - that are now extinct. If this sapling happens to be female - there are both male and female date trees - then it is possible that next year it may produce fruit.
Dates have been an indispensable food within the Middle East for thousands of years. The Arabs took them to Asia and North Africa and from there the Spanish traders transported them to California and Mexico. The sweet fruit known as a drupe can be eaten fresh or dried, producing a wonderful syrup and honey which can be distilled into a potent liqueur. And the most perfect leaves are used for lulavim during Succot.
Interestingly, in India the sap is tapped and converted into palm sugar called jaggery - an essential part of Indian cuisine.
Many doctors believe that the date is almost a perfect food as it contains a vast array of nutrients. Although dates are high in sugar - approximately 80 per cent - the rest consists of protein and fat with a mineral content including copper, iron, sulphur, fluoric acid and magnesium.
Dates are also high in fibre and potassium which helps to balance our sodium-rich diets. And eaten in moderation they can improve our health and vitality.
Dates are particularly adaptable. You can serve them with drinks stuffed with almonds or walnuts, or as a delicious foil for cream cheese or a soft cheese such as goat's cheese or a gooey rich brie. Just remove the stone and stuff the cavity.
In Morocco I watched as diners enjoyed dates simmered in a fragrant meaty tagine - the juices tangy with salted preserved lemons and an array of spices. You can use this technique by adding stoned dates to tsimmes, sweet and sour brisket or cooked tongue along with plenty of lemon, sliced onions and a little cinnamon to balance the flavours.
However, there is no doubt that the date excels when added to puddings. Add stoned date pieces to chilled pineapple slices with a sprinkle of chopped mint, for a refreshingly healthy dessert. You can make a nutritious treat by adding chopped dates and pecan nuts to a muffin mix, or combine with sliced bananas and blueberries for a luscious breakfast combined with yoghurt or muesli.
But do not forget the old fashioned date and walnut cake or try my glorious Soaked Date and Fruit Tea Bread for a moist fat-free cake that keeps well in the tin and is the simplest cake to make.
Soaked Date and fruit tea bread
● 175g, 6oz dates – chopped
● 50g, 2oz raisins
● 500g, 1 lb 2oz mixed dried fruit
● 200 ml 7 floz hot strained tea
● 1½ teaspoon mixed spice
● 2 tbsp marmalade
● 175g, 6oz fair-trade muscovado sugar
● 1 tbsp golden syrup
● Juice and rind of ½ lemon
● 450g, 1 lb self raising flour
● 1 medium free range egg
● Line one large 2-3 lb loaf tin or 2x 1 lb tins. Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 4, 180°C, 350°F.
● Combine ingredients except the flour and egg in a large bowl. Leave covered overnight or at least 2 hours.
● Next day beat in egg. Quickly add the flour – pour into tins.
Bake for 1 to 1 ½ hours