Lucy Corry: Save the date
Make room in your calendar for nature’s sweetest treat.
What do dates have in common with plant-based pasta, ethically raised chicken and avocado oil? Well, everything and nothing, depending on your point of view.
Earlier this month I was highly amused and annoyed in equal parts when I read a report declaring that dates would be big in 2023, according to a trend forecast by US food chain Whole Foods.
Breathlessly-told stories about trends are often aggravating (hello, butter boards, feta and tomato pasta, ‘healthy’ coke made with balsamic vinegar?), but this one amused and annoyed me because I don’t want dates to be declared ‘cool’. In my household at least, dates have always been on trend. For once, I can claim to be an early adopter — I remember standing on a stool to reach the jar of dates unsuccessfully hidden in the pantry as a small child. I don’t need big business to tell me what to do, I’m already saving the date.
I think of dates as nature’s sweetest treat. They’ve been cultivated since around 4000 BC and are often referenced in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. What’s often missing from the story is that dates are hard to grow and even harder to harvest. They’re pollinated and picked by hand (let’s think for a moment about having to do this at the top of a swaying date palm tree). As if that wasn’t hard enough, picking is made even more tricky by the fact that the fruit ripens at different times. Wait, maybe they do deserve a bit more recognition. Quick, give that fruit a hashtag!
While fresh medjool dates are the ultimate fudgy luxury, most of the time I’m happy with the humble dried date from a packet with a camel on the front. I eat dates as a snack — a couple before a run, or to add some fruit content (ha!) to a handful of dark chocolate and almonds — or use them to sweeten a smoothie. In the past I’ve made my own date syrup and recreated my mother’s amazing Date and Lemon Cake. My sister-in-law Jenny taught me how to make this exceptional date salsa, which people are at first dubious about but then can’t stop eating.
So I suppose I shouldn’t be churlish about more people discovering the date and all its pleasures. Perhaps they are the best sweetener for these uncertain times. As the Arab proverb supposedly says: ‘Better a handful of dry dates and content therewith than to own the Gate of Peacocks and be kicked in the eye by a broody camel’. I hope there are plenty of dates in your year ahead.
Lee’s Date Scones
My mother-in-law makes incredible date scones. A few years ago I begged her for her recipe, which I’ve included below (you can thank me later). These scones are light and date-y, and they taste amazing with lashings of butter and/or a thick slice of cheddar. They taste even better when someone else makes them for you – so be sure to share this recipe with someone who owes you a favour.
1 generous cup chopped dates
juice and zest of one orange (or just a bit of boiling water)
2 cups flour
50g butter, cold from the fridge
4 tsp baking powder
2 tsp mixed spice (optional)
½ tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk (or ordinary milk)
Heat the oven to 215C.
Put the dates in a small bowl and add the orange juice and zest. Zap in the microwave for about a minute (or heat in a small pot). Alternatively, slosh a couple of tablespoons of boiling water on the dates. Leave to cool (you can do this well in advance and pop them in the fridge).
Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Grate in the butter, then rub it into the dry ingredients.
Whisk an egg lightly with a fork and add about half of it to the buttermilk. Toss dates (don’t drain them) into dry ingredients, add buttermilk/egg mixture. Fold together, adding more buttermilk if it’s too dry.
Pat the mixture out on a floured bench and cut into rectangles. Transfer them to an oven tray and bake for about 15 minutes. These are best the day they’re made, but respond well to freezing.