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Dates (Phoenix Dactylifera)

Dates flourished as far back as 50,000 BC, and developing man must have found them invaluable; even burning the stones as fuel. Later, date orchards in Mesopotamia, carefully irrigated by canals, provided a constant supply; giving character to meat dishes, high-energy food for the traveller (with a sugar content of over 50%), and the juice being pressed into a thick syrup, which was used in puddings and sweetmeats as a substitute for honey, or in the making of fermented or soft drinks. There are many varieties, each having a different asset - for more information on their history and many varieties try to find a book by Paul. B. Popenoe, called "Date Growing in the Old and New Worlds" originally published by Altadena in the U.S.A.

To grow well, date palms need very high temperatures, low humidity and plenty of water on their roots. Date palms live as long as 200 years in their native areas, but when cultivated, they are generally replaced when they reach 50 feet, as their top-central fruits become to hard to harvest easily.

Although there are many varieties, these can be divided into 3 main types:

Soft dates - these have a soft flesh, as their name suggests, a high moisture content and relatively-low sugar content

Semi-dry dates - these have firm flesh, a fairly low moisture content, and a high sugar level. These are the type of date most frequently encountered in Britain - often packed in a long box, around a twig or plastic stick.

Dry dates - these are also known as 'bread dates'. They have a high sugar content, low moisture and dry, hard flesh. They are/were the most useful type for nomadic Arabs, as they provide a balanced nutritional package, if milk is also drunk - to provide the missing minerals.

Dates are sodium-free, fat-free, cholesterol-free and a good source of fibre - all of which are important factors in reducing the risk of both heart disease and cancer. The average date contains about 23 calories, 240 milligrams of potassium (needed for the nervous system), magnesium, and a variety of B-complex vitamins - including B-6, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin and thiamine.

Dates are considered by herbalists to be healing food. They have a detoxifying action and are one of the most alkalising fruits - that is, they balance acidic conditions in the body, which adversely affect health.

The main varieties are as follows:

Asharasi - An excellent 'dry' date.

Barhi /barhee- A popular date in the Middle East, where its generally eaten fresh - although some are cured.

Deglet Noor -A semi-dry date, grown in Algeria, but now also making up about 90% of California's crop. Its flavour is mild.

Halawy - A soft date, with thick flesh which is caramelly and sweet. These dates have a wrinkled appearance, and are light amber to golden brown in colour. Most are grown in the Middle East and exported.

Hilali: A fresh date rarely seen outside the Middle East, as it doesn't cure well.

Khadrawy - A soft date, originally from Iraq. It cures well, is reddish-brown when sold and has a caramel-like texture and good flavour.

Khalas - A very popular date in the Middle East. It is excellent fresh or cured.

Medjool - Considered by some to be the Rolls Royce of dates. This date is deep-red in colour and has thick flesh, little fibre and a rich flavour. Most are now produced in the U.S.A.

Thoory - The driest variety - and often called the 'bread date'. Its flesh is sticky and the flesh chewy.

Yatimeh - These are good fresh or cured and are mainly produced in North Africa.

Zahidi - The principle date of Iraq - they are eaten in all 3 stages, from fresh to dry. its high sugar content makes it a popular date for producing industrial sugar. See 'Figs, Medicinal uses'

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