Sunday, September 05, 2004

And Now Dates

Yellow dates
Yellow dates, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
When I lived in Canada, we would watch for the green summer leaves to turn red, gold, and orange, knowing that it was the sign that summer was over and winter was on its way. Egypt, as always, is a different story, but we also have something that is the signal that the heat of summer is over. We watch the green dates on the palms turn to gold, yellow and deep red in preparation for the date harvest. This comes in September and October just as the mango harvest is winding down, which is a good thing since they are both very labour intensive harvests.

The date harvest is one of my favourite times of year here. Entire families move from the villages to camping huts in the date groves of Dahshur. Near Abu Sir, where the fields are open for cultivation, date palms occupy smaller groves or line the edges of fields. As the bunches of dates get heavier towards the end of summer long ropes made of palm fiber are tied to some of the older, taller trees to help stabilise them and keep them from bending right over. Naturally the ropes attract the children who climb over them and bounce from them whenever the adults aren't looking.

There are over 600 varieties of dates, most of which look a bit wrinkled and brown when they've been dried. Fresh and crisp, however, they are anything from pale yellow to a burgundy red and can be almost round or as long and thick around as a thumb.

As the corn is harvested at the end of summer, the stalks are saved to be woven into walls to surround fallow fields where the dates will be sorted and dried in the sun on mats woven from the fronds. The dates most commonly sold in markets outside the Middle East and North Africa are those that have been left to ripen in the sun. The fresh dates have an astringent taste that can be a bit hard to get used to at first, but they are wonderfully refreshing as they aren't as sweet and heavy as the dry ones. Some dates are left to dry totally and can be stored for a year or so. Dropped into a bowl of water or milk, they reconstitute in a couple of hours to their heavy sweetness. An image of dates drying in Siwa Oasis can be seen at siwapic7.html

Date palms are believed to have been one of the first plants to be domesticated and they are a marvel. There is no part of the plant that cannot be used. The trunks are split to use for building or supporting things. They are fibrous and rot quickly if left wet, but in Egypt that isn't much of a problem. The fronds are cut a couple of times a year and used to thatch houses or animal sheds. I use them to shade my aviary. I have chairs, sofas and tables made from the ribs of the fronds from which the leaves have been stripped to use in making mats, baskets and fiber. The sheep, goats, horses, donkeys and camels are fond of the fronds and of chewing on the palm trunks themselves, and they love the windfall dates that they can find on the ground. In emergencies, water can be found by cutting the growing heart of the palm and scooping it out of the center of the trunk, while the heart itself is a nourishing meal. Dates themselves contain a wealth of minerals and are used to rebalance the bodies electrolytes after the Ramadan fast.

I lived around palm trees a good part of my life without really understanding the wonder of these incredible trees. They are very slow growing but they begin bearing fruit early. There are some new groves where the bunches of fruit barely clear the ground. That must be great for the harvesting and maintenance. But for me, one of the great joys is just looking out over the fields from my roof and watching the long fronds tossing in the wind like landlocked sea anenomes.


Juli said...

That is so neat. I'd never heard half that information on dates and palms. Your entire blog is great. I've learned so much about Egypt. Keep up the great blog :)

Eyes said...

I have never seen a date tree before. I had no idea how they grew. Thanks for the sharing that!

I buy dates here in the US for my doggies as sweet treats! They love them when I eat chocolate or something else they shouldn't have...