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Medjool dates are the oldest cultivated fruit in the world
The Medjool date may be known locally as the crown jewel of dates, but Yuma growers would like to see the tasty little fruit make a big name for itself someday.
Yuma is one of the major growers of the Medjool, a $35 million industry that employs more than 2,000 people every year, according to the Yuma Visitors Bureau.
In 1927, a disease outbreak in Morocco resulted in a small group of trees being brought to Nevada for quarantine. Saved from extinction, offshoots of the original trees were eventually planted in Bard Valley in the 1940s.
Although today this area is one of the world's largest producers of Medjools, these high-quality dates have yet to reach a broader market in the United States. Gus Nunez, sales president of Imperial Date Gardens, said the company's recent marketing efforts are aimed at reaching consumers in states Back East, such as New York.
“We want to make sure the stores they shop at carry the product,” said Nunez, who described Medjools as more soft and moist than other varieties.
Nunez expects to see Medjool dates featured on television cooking shows in the future, which he sees as one way to promote the fruit's health benefits and versatility.
Medjool dates are said to be high in fiber, potassium and antioxidants, and free of fat, sodium and cholesterol. Two average-sized dates contain about 140 calories.
Debra Mansheim knows all about dressing up a Medjool date. At her downtown store, Basket Creations and More, Mansheim sells them stuffed with walnuts and slivered almonds, dipped in white or milk chocolate, rolled in coconut or wrapped in bacon.
“We can stuff Medjool dates with anything,” said Mansheim, who recently placed an order for dates filled with dill pickle.
Dates receive a grade based on size and perfection. A retail distributor for the Bard Date Company, its best date is called a jumbo and is a “pleasure to eat,” she said. Their online customers come from as far away as Australia.
Dates have been a regularly eaten food in the Middle East for thousands of years. In Islamic countries they are traditionally eaten during Ramadan. As well as religious symbolism, they are known for their healing properties.
Despite their long history, dates are the Rodney Dangerfield of fruit because they get “no respect,” said Dave Mansheim, who works for the Bard Date Company. In other words, they don't get much publicity.
He recently took a trip to Israel to learn about the country's growing practices and to discuss the formation of a global date growers association. “The Israelis are very good about irrigation and water conservation,” he said.
Jason Rogers helps manage his parents' date farm, Martha's Garden, located on 140 acres east of Arizona Western College. Each of their 8,000 trees is climbed up to 25 times a year, he said.
Every season trees must be thinned, strands separated, thorns cut and fruit arms tied to curve downward. Pollination, which begins in March, is done by hand.
“It is a marathon business and we learn something new every year,” Rogers said. “There's really never a true down time.”
Trees don't produce dates for the first seven years but can live to be over 60. Medjool dates thrive in low humidity and high heat. Too much moisture can cause dates to drop off or their skin to split. Still, they need a lot of water — one tree alone can consume 100 gallons a day, Rogers said.
For Nunez, whose family bought their first farm in 1972, date farming didn't seem all that exciting. But he grew to appreciate his family's unique business, although very labor intensive.
The end product is always a source of pride. “The quality that comes out is worth the effort,” he said.
MEDJOOL DATE NUT LOAF
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 T soft shortening
1-1/2 c milk
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
3-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1 cup chopped Medjool dates
Mix sugar, shortening and egg thoroughly. Add milk and stir.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and add to milk mixture.
Stir in nuts and Medjool dates.
Pour into well-greased 9x5x3” baking pan. Let stand for 20 minutes before baking.
Bake in a moderate 350 degree oven for 50-70 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean.
Courtesy of “Medjool Date Recipe Book,” from Bard Date Company
DATE MARSHMALLOW DESSERT
8 oz. dates (chopped and pitted)
3/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups small marshmallows
1/2 cup nuts
12 Oreo cookies (crushed)
1 cup whipped cream (vanilla added)
Combine dates, water and salt and bring to a boil, simmer for three minutes. Add marshmallows and cool to room temperature. Add chopped nuts.
Put Oreo crumbs on bottom of 10x6x1-1/2 or 9x9 greased pan (reserve 1/4 cup for top). Spread date mixture over cookies, and spread the whipped cream over date mixture. Sprinkle reserved crumbs on top. Refrigerate. Cut into squares when ready to serve.
Courtesy of Martha's Gardens Medjool Date Farm