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

SALT BEEF AND SOCIABILITY: Gaby’s Deli, Charing Cross Road, London

For as long as I can remember, Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road has been part of my London cityscape.  Just down from the Wyndham Theatre, it is a familiar West End presence – a modest façade with Gaby’s trademark colourful salads proudly displayed in the window. Now this modest, down-to-earth eaterie is under threat, with Gaby Elyahou of Gaby’s given notice to quit by his landlords, Gascoyne Holdings.

Gaby's, Charing Cross Road, London

Gaby outside his iconic West End deli

“I’ve been here since 1964,” explains Gaby, a sprightly, dapper figure, with a shrewd face and wonderfully alert eyes. “It was a salt beef bar before I took it over. I added more dishes, bought an espresso machine, started to concentrate on the salads – we do 37, all home-made. The people who eat here, they know about salt beef. It’s a meal. You can see how much meat we put in the sandwich. I think it’s the best sandwich in the world. I mean it. What other sandwich can you have so much meat in?”

As we chat, Gaby insists on ordering me a plate of his falafel to sample. It arrives promptly – a generous serving of crisp, freshly-fried falafel on a bed of humous, topped with foul medames, then tahini, sprinkled with parsley, with two warm pitta bread on the side. Truly tasty food. Watching Gaby in action, teasing the old ladies sitting to our left, calling out a friendly greeting to a customer walking by, noticing that a customer needs sugar for his coffee, I realise, however,  it’s not simply the good, fresh food and the reasonable prices which bring people back here time and time again. This is a place with a human face to it. Gaby is one of a fast-vanishing breed of proper, old school proprietors – alert, democratic, experienced, proud of his business, relishing the face-to-face contact with all his customers, gloriously nosy and interested in everyone who comes in. As a result, in a world where clonetown franchises dominate, Gaby’s has that rare quality – personality.

Falafel at Gaby's

“There are too many chains around here now,” says Gaby thoughtfully. “We serve home-made soup, really filling, moussaka, meatballs, goulash. We have a special every day,” he gestures towards the board. “Tell me – in the West End, where else can you sit and eat a meal for £6 or £7?  I don’t have tablecloths or a waiter with a white starched short, but all the food is freshly made. We get in at 8am – we have to prepare the food.  It’s a lot of work. Eating a sandwich – that’s boring! There are too many sandwich shops. We get a lot of theatre people, always have done, always actors. They want something light before the show, so they have a salad.”

“People come back here. We have customers returning from America, Scandinavia, South Africa, from Timbuktu – they come from all over the world. I just had a customer tell me that his grandparents from South Africa always come here when they’re in London, so they told him to come.”

The announcement that Gaby’s was being closed down has seen an extraordinary response from his customers, with their campaign to Save Gaby’s launched on Facebook quickly attracting thousands of supporters. A series of Falafel Cabarets have been launched, with Gaby’s thespian customers, such as the actors Henry Goodman and Simon Callow, generously performing to help spread the word.

Among the Save Gaby’s team is Steve Engelhard, who explains why he joined the campaign. “I’ve known Gaby’s for many years. I think it was my big brother who first alerted me to it. We’re a family with Jewish origins – so salt beef, falafel, salads  are comfort food as far as I’m concerned. Gaby’s is affordable, it’s unpretentious, the quality is high and it’s very individual – there’s none of the blandness which goes with chains. When I heard that Gaby’s was threatened, I thought I’ve seen too many of my favourite places closing. I’m not a campaigner by habit. It pleases me no end that there’s such a community of people willing to make a stand about this. I think it’s a sense of maintaining a personal landscape, a personal identification with something that contributes to the quality of life and to the soul of London. Without individual places like Gaby’s the West End could easily be as bland as any standard high street.”

The affection in which Gaby’s is held is almost palpable. Gaby’s customers, when they realise that I’m writing about the Save Gaby’s campaign, are eager to tell me what Gaby’s means to them. A middle-aged man, who’s been sitting together with his wife and young daughter eating a meal at a table next to me, stops unprompted to talk to me. “I first came here in my early 20s, so have been coming here for 25 years now. It would be a terrible shame if it went. It’s a disgrace that Westminster Council didn’t protect it. Walk to Leicester Square – all you see are crappy pizza and pasta restaurants. They should be protecting this – tourists want London proper, not chain London. This is an iconic, one-off restaurant.” An elegantly-dressed, elderly gentleman pauses shyly on his way out to tell me “I’ve been coming here for decades. It’s desperately sad. So much of London is under threat. It seems wrong that someone who’s been here for so long can be kicked out when so many people care about it.”

Gaby himself is touched by the campaign, wryly amused at the fuss his customers are stirring up. “It was all from the customers. People came and said “We’re not going to let you go.” Boris Johnson, Ken Livingston, actors – they all come here to show support. The newspapers, TV they’ve all come here. I know a lot of people. Fifty years here, it’s not three months. I hope they don’t spoil the West End, but I think they will.” He pauses and shrugs expressively. A neatly printed notice sellotaped to the counter behind him reads: ‘Thank you to our customers who set up and signed up to Save Gabys Deli on Facebook. We are very touched by all your support. The management and team at Gaby’s.’

“The only hope,” explains Steve Engelhard from the Save Gaby’s campaign, “ is to change the mind of Gascoyne Holdings and its directors,  notably Lord Salisbury – because everything else has been tried. Westminster have granted the planning consent. The only remaining hope is to change the minds of the owners. We’ve had huge press coverage. The question is do these people want to minimise the bad publicity they’re getting? Do they want to be clever and get good publicity for doing the right thing in the end and saving a well-loved institution?” If affection and loyalty alone were enough to save Gaby’s deli, then its future would absolutely be assured.

Thankfully, spring 2012 saw Gaby’s granted a temporary reprieve, with his lease extended until May 2013. The Save Gabys campaign remains vigilant, ready to spring back into vociferous action should the threat to close their beloved Gaby’s return.

http://www.facebook.com/save.gabys.deli

Twitter: @SaveGabys

Gaby's