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

An American Food Store in London

 

Ali and Tahira Punjani of the American Food Store

It was the sign that first caught my eye. I was updating my food shopping guide  Food Lovers’ London, out visiting food shops in Holland Park. Walking up towards  Notting Hill, I spotted the red, white and blue sign declaring ‘American Food Store’ in large letters above what looked like a newsagents. I crossed the road and peered in – there – past the magazines and newspapers – were shelves lined with gaudily colourful cans and packets  so I went in to investigate.Sure enough, there was an array of American foodstuffs, from boxes of Duncan Hines Red Velvet Cake Mix and cans of the iconic Campbell’s Tomato Soup made famous by Andy Warhol to fluorescent-coloured packets of Wonka Nerds and Bazooka bubble gum. The shop’s friendly, helpful owner, Ali Punjani, explained that this had been a newsagent and a post office, but was now indeed an American food store – known for both the range it carries and its competitive pricing.  Intrigued by what he’d told me, I returned to learn more of Ali’s story and how he’d come to set up his American food shop.

American Food Store, 2 Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park, London W11 3BG

“My family is from Kenya. My grandparents were traders from India who followed the British Army and settled there. We came over here when I was five. We’ve had this shop since 1972 – a little post office and a newsagents. I grew up in the shop,” explains Ali smiling “so everyone locally knows me.” When his father sadly passed away from a heart attack, Ali took over the family business, working with his mother.  “It was very high pressure running a post office; a lot of responsibility. All the pubs and coffee shops used to bank with us, so we had money to count, re-count, bag up – and always the security risk, always that fear. The nice thing though was the contact with the regular customers; people I grew up with. When I was a kid it was fun because I had access to sweets!”

“About four and a half years ago, the post office shut down. It was cutbacks and an enforced closure. It was not a good period of my life. We were very upset; we cried for a couple of days,” Ali tells me, “because it was a way of life. Without the post office the shop wouldn’t survive; it didn’t have the footfall. The locals were really supportive and our customers came up with suggestions of what to do; crazy things like haberdashery or health food,” he laughs. “An American woman called Jill Ruddock said I should have American foods and do it properly, have a whole range rather than just a few items. It was  a risk because we had to make a big investment and we didn’t know if it would go or not. I bought half a container load to start with. When we got the stuff, we didn’t know what it was or how to arrange it . Grapenuts – no grapes, no nuts! Cream of wheat; what is that?! Jill Ruddock came in and helped me arrange the ingredients; I couldn’t believe that she took the time to come and help me.”

Word spread among the ex-pat American community that this small shop was now carrying an extensive range of American ingredients. “I’m very grateful to that film Notting Hill because whenever Americans get posted to London and asked where they want to live they say Notting Hill! There’s a big American community here. They like the range of what I sell – other shops will have the bestsellers and the fast-sellers but I have the biggest range and our prices are competitive too – very,” he says emphatically. Such has been the demand that in addition to the shop, Ali now runs a flourishing American food mail order website. “Now we import full containers of foods from America every five or six weeks.”

Ali proudly talks me through his stock of American foodstuffs. “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese – a lot of my banker customers go crazy for it. It’s because when they were at college, they ate it all the time and they’re nostalgic for it. At Thanksgiving, it’s things like cans of pumpkin, readymade pie crusts and marshmallows. Borden Eggnog – this is a must for Christmas and Thanksgiving.” He gestures towards the packets of Jell-o “apparently it’s got a different texture from our English jelly. This Berry Blue is a bestseller because you can’t get blue jelly – they do red, white and blue jellies. We sold lots during the U.S. elections; they had parties waiting for the results. We’ve sold out of grits  – people have grown up on it and they can’t get enough of it.“

Red Velvet cake mix, American Food Store

Chatty and sociable, Ali obviously enjoys the social side to running a food business. “This stuff brings in a younger crowd and there’s lots to talk about. I learn something new every day. They educate me and tell me about the things we should get in. We had Brad Pitt and Angelina in here,” Ali tells me proudly. “A massive Mercedes Maybach with a chauffeur drew up outside and two people came in. She was really beautiful and I was trying to work out who she was and then I looked up and saw him and I said ‘Brad Pitt’ and he said ‘yes’ and I said  ‘I don’t have my camera with me’ and he said ‘lucky me!’”

At the moment, the shop continues to function as both a newsagent – complete with newspapers, magazines and a photocopier –  and an American food shop. Plans are afoot, however, to make it look more obviously an American food shop. “It’s the biggest part of the business. We’ve got a new sign coming. Do you know the designer Paul Smith? He helped me! He’s my customer and I asked him for advice and he drew a little sketch and said make the sign all black with just your name on it. It’ll be up soon. The shop is changing; the shelf space dedicated to American foodstuffs is getting bigger and bigger.” Having made that first speculative investment in a half-containerload of American ingredients, Ali is relishing watching his new business flourish. “My gamble paid off,” he says. “Now it’s like the whole world has opened up, so I’m really grateful for the post office closing!

American Food Store

www.usafoodstore.co.uk

American confectionary, American Food Store