Let's Eat

Why it's time to save the (Medjool) date

That most biblical of food, dates, are enjoying a worldwide surge in demand


Sales of dates are soaring, and the increased appetite for them is great news for Israel. Although the country is only the world's 18th largest date producer it commands some 60 per cent of the export market for Medjool dates - the most prized and succulent variety.

The variety made it to Israel from California, where most of America's dates, brought by the Spanish in the 18th century, are grown. Both centres of production are dwarfed, however, by Egypt, the largest producer, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Oman, the UAE and Tunisia.

Israel grows nine date varieties, mainly in the Jordan Valley but also in the south of the country. As well as the best-known Medjool and Deglet Noor, there are also the Barhi, Hayani and the softer Deri, Halawi, Hadrawi, Ameri and Zahidi varieties. Israel exports some of its Barhi as yellow dates, which can be found in specialist greengrocers and are freshly picked, firmer, less sweet and need to be peeled before eating.

Hadiklaim, the Israeli date growers' co-operative, has been credited by business analysts Bloomberg Credit with rebranding dates as a must-have recipe ingredient. The drive has been a success, with upmarket supermarkets like Waitrose and Marks & Spencer taking on Israeli Medjools.

M&S reports a 25 per cent surge this year in sales: "We take all our dates from Israel as they are of such superb quality and we have long-standing relationships with Israeli suppliers," says M&S date buyer Zeina Chapman. "Dates are on-trend at the moment, with Ottolenghi and cooks like Ella Woodward (Deliciously Ella) and Lorraine Pascale championing their sugars as a healthier alternative in cakes and desserts."

At Waitrose, date buyer Amy Lance is equally enthusiastic, reporting a 9 per cent increase in sales. "Shoppers are seeking out healthier snacking options, with many of our customers using them in smoothies, desserts and granolas."

The fruit is also pretty good for you. Dates have been shown in scientific studies to protect against many diseases including cancer via their anti-oxidant, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. The fruit was also reported this year by scientists at Cardiff Metropolitan University to be as potent in fighting off harmful bacteria as costly Manuka honey.

Last year Israel sent nearly £15 million of dates to the UK, a 15 per cent increase over 2013. Fashionable restaurants are helping fuel the demand.

Jordan Sclare, chef at trendy Peruvian fusion restaurant Chotto Matte, loves dates and always has a jar marinating in rum. "Israeli are my favourites as they are extra sweet and moist."

He blends these to a paste and buries them at the base of a chocolate mousse. He has also served crème brûlée with a core of date purée: "I used less sugar than usual in the custard, and it was a big success."

Ben Tish, chef director of the Salt Yard, is also a fan of Medjool dates: "They have an incredible depth of flavour; the toffee-caramel quality they bring to a dish is special and hard to replicate. They've also got a sturdy texture which holds up well in cooking." Tish mixes soaked, chopped dates with chopped walnuts and gorgonzola, stirs into béchamel sauce and moulds the mixture into croquettes, rolled in flour, eggs and breadcrumbs before frying.

At Fitzrovia salt beef and bagel emporium, Delancey & Co the "Phat Elvis bagel" is a toasted cinnamon and raisin bagel with chopped Medjools sprinkled over the half spread with peanut butter. The other half is spread with Nutella.

Yotam Ottolenghi quarters Medjools and tosses them with whole almonds into a salad of baby spinach leaves and the American-Jewish food and cookbook writer Marlena Spieler, serves them stuffed with soft goat's cheese or lightly sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt flakes as an accompaniment for cheese and wine.

Spieler points out the vogue for dates has also brought silan - date nectar - to the fore: "It's thought it was the 'honey' referred to in the phrase 'land of milk and honey'." Silan is perfect for drizzling onto all kinds of grilled food, from fish and chicken to cauliflower.

Fashionable healthy eating champion, Ella Woodward is a brand ambassador for date nectar, available on Amazon: "I use it on everything from porridge to smoothies, chia puddings, crumbles, muffins, cakes and icing." She also champions the date shake (below), a favourite in Palm Springs where they use handfuls of chopped, stoned dates blended with one part milk to three parts vanilla ice-cream. Woodward's sugar-free version uses the nectar blended with almond milk, almond butter and fresh banana.

Whichever way you make it, it's nice to know that this sweetest of treats could actually be the healthiest as well as happiest way to toast the New Year.

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