You just gotta love being able to respond to an email request for a coffee date with "I'm in Yuma, Arizona with the Natural Delights Medjool Date people, 50 feet up a date tree, harvesting the most delicious, nutritious natural snack!" Okay, it is a bit obnoxious, but my friends tolerate me anyway.
Dates are kind of ugly until you see them up close and yellow hanging in drupes, ripening on the tree. Trees grow about a foot per year and the low, young ones can be picked without any special equipment. After age 60, the trees still bear fruit, but there is no picking machine tall enough to reach. In this grove, the original 6 still stand but are somewhat beautifully out of reach.
No matter the height, the process is the same. A sack embraces the whole cluster so the fruit doesn't fall or bruise. The bottom of the sack is firmly held and untied in one hand and gently shaken in a circular motion with the other. If it isn't ripe, the date won't fall. It is a metaphor for life, really there is no cheating mother nature. To accommodate her grace, the pickers go up each tree up to 25 times.
That's it. That's all that happens to a date. There is no real drying process. They are mostly grown without the use of pesticides or sprays unless some crazy pest shows up. (The organically certified growers can't use any!) Some groves pull water from the shallow water table and flood the soil, newer systems use sprinklers and just hit the trees. Either way, the low waste process in Bard Valley, Arizona pleases the ecologically concerned.
Dates are moved to a nearby packaging plant, were they are warmed just until they are all equally moist for shipping and then sorted and packaged. Here's what you want to know: the grades are really just about the size and beauty of the fruit. The taste of medjool dates rarely varies from its sweet, intensely soft, self. If you want to pay less, go for fancy instead of extra fancy or large, because it is really only the size and beauty of the skin that matters. The taste is all there. I met a group of women who sort these babies day in and day out who have a keen eye for size and shape. (And a good sense of humour about my lame, slow hands and eyes that got too tired to discern within minutes.)
Newish to the market are the gateway snack, date rolls, which consist of the very same fruit that is mashed and expertly rolled in nuts or coconut. Two balls contain enough carb and minerals to help you recover from any workout. Here is a recipe for date balls that you can make at home and keep in your desk for those emergency snacking moments. What? They happen!