A DATE WITH DATES

Dates, Bateel, London

From a quick, passing glance at Bateel’s immaculate New Bond Street shop-cum-café, one might guess it was the branch of an upmarket chocolate shop. Stepping inside, however, one is greeted with Bateel’s speciality: dates. There, carefully displayed behind a glass counter are an assortment of date varieties, in a range of sizes, shapes and shades, from small, rounded dates to long, oval dates in colours ranging from caramel-brown to deep purple-black.  These are dates, Captain, but not as we know them . . .

Having come across Bateel while researching my book Food Lovers’ London, I wanted to learn more, so arranged to meet Alfred Hunter, Bateel’s London branch manager, who told me the story of Bateel. A family-run, Saudi company, the core of the business is the family’s date farms in central Saudi, an area traditionally noted for its dates. “This area has the right micro-climate. Very hot days and very cold nights and a lot of sweet water, not saline; most desert water is salty. It’s amazing, but a single date palm – even though it grows in the desert – uses about 120 litres of water; they grow in oases. We produce around 3,000 tonnes of dates a year. All the dates Bateel sell come from our own farms, so from the farm to the retail stores we control the production and processing.” This ability to quality-control along the chain is key to Bateel’s operations. Bateel work intensively with their date trees, fertilising them by hand to ensure maximum fertilisation, carefully tending the trees, minimising pest infestation, harvesting the dates in stages as they ripen and carefully storing them.

The date counter at Bateel, London

Founded in 1992, Bateel pioneered the concept of gourmet dates. “The family took a boutique store in a high-end area of Riyadh in Saudi, brought dates from their farms and arranged them in pyramids. Traditionally, dates were something you bought in the market in sacks. No one had thought of presenting them in this way, in the way that high-end chocolates in Europe are displayed. Also, these were high-quality dates, not like the average dates sold in markets. The idea is that you can visit the Middle East and take away a taste of the Middle East.” Dates, of course, play a huge part in Middle Eastern culture, traditionally a valuable source of tradition for desert-dwelling Bedouins. “In the Middle East they give boxes of dates, especially during religious festivals. During Ramadan you fast all day, you don’t want to eat rich food, the best thing to break your fast would be some dates and water. They have a slow-releasing sugar with loads of energy.”

Bateel grow over 20 varieties of dates and this range is very much part of what makes Bateel distinctive. Alfred talks me through and also, deliciously, gives me dates to sample, so that I can see for myself the range of flavours and textures on offer. Before we start talking varieties, however, there are three different stages of ripeness to learn about, which Alfred explains to me. The first stage is called balah; “When you see yellow dates at the start of the season in April or May, those are balah, very crunchy and quite tart. They taste like sugarcane.”Next comes rhutab:  “The dates then ripen on the tree and soften to this stage. At this point, they’re so moist, they’d rot within a few days of harvesting. The only way to preserve that soft freshness is to freeze them, so that’s what we do. You take them out of the freezer and they taste like they just came off the tree. Then, if you leave them on the tree, the sun dried them and the moisture goes and they become tamr. These in the counter are all tamr. Some varieties when they’re tamr become quite dry and hard, so people think they’re old dates, but they’re not, that’s the way that variety dries out.” The tamr dates on the counter are then graded according to size: PM premium medium, PL premium large, XPL extra premium large.

Rhutab dates served with traditional Qahwa coffee

Having discussed the stages of ripeness, Alfred takes me through the varieties. There is an overall difference in flavour depending on the variety’s colour, he explains. “The light-skinned dates all have a toffee caramel flavour to them. The temperature gets up to 55 degrees in the desert; the sun gets through the skin and melts the sugars and gives that caramel flavour. The dark-skinned dates don’t let so much sunlight into the fruit; they have a dark, molasses flavour.”

Alfred picks up a dry-looking, yellow-coloured date and taps it emphatically on the counter, where it sounds hard, like a nut. “Listen to how hard that is – this is the sokari hard – it dries up and gets harder and the longer you leave it the harder it gets. We have customers who only want the hard ones and make us pick out the hard ones. Try it – it has a honeycomb texture.” As I chew the dry, textured date, a lovely, rich sweetness is released, with a long finish. Next I try Kholas – a light-skinned date, golden-brown in colour, which has a fudgy flavour. Khidri, a dark-skinned variety, has a more muted flavour with dark sugar notes and a long finish. “When people say a date’s a date,”  Alfred pauses slightly and laughs – “they are not. I mean, there are three dates which are totally different from each other.”

Sokari dates

Agwa, a small, rounded, dark-skinned date, known as the ‘holy date’ as it was the favourite date of the Prophet Mohammed, is traditionally eaten during Ramadan and Eid. This is the only date variety Bateel sell which they don’t grow themselves, as it is grown in Madinah. It has a chewy texture and a muscatel raisin-like flavour. The Sagai date, brown-coloured but with a distinctive yellow tip, intriguingly combines two textures – hard and soft –   in one date and has a delicate, honey sweetness. Barhi, a small, golden-brown ball-shaped date, has a sticky, figginess to it, with an intensely sweet finish. I also sample Madjool or Medjool, the one date which is marketed as a named premium variety in the UK. Large and plump, it is notably soft-textured and the sweetness is simple, lacking the long finish the other date varieties had.

Alfred’s pride in the dates he sells is evident. I ask how he came to work for Bateel and it turns out that he was a former customer in Dubai who became fascinated by dates; “I went into Bateel there and discovered rhutab sokari,” he explains simply. Widely known in the Middle East and operating in 16 countries, Bateel is very much a global brand. The New Bond Street site is the first Bateel store in the UK. Given our lack of knowledge of dates in Britain, you must do a lot of explaining, I observe. “Yeah, we have to – people are not used to dates here. People here have only ever seen Medjool, so they don’t know how many varieties there are. We’re getting there though.”  A lot of Bateel’s business is repeat business, he tells me, once people have tried the dates and discovered what they’re like. “I’ve yet to have anybody tell me they don’t enjoy dates, after they’ve tried ours,” he says with satisfaction.

Bateel, London

Bateel, 76 New Bond Street, W1S 1RX, 020 7493 3199, www.bateel.co.uk