Putting sugar to shame

Not the poisoned dates from <i>Raiders of the Lost Ark</i>.

Not the poisoned dates from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Who needs white sugar?

Not Katie Siegfried, a Butte County farmer who hasn’t spooned granulated sucrose into her oatmeal for 20 years. Instead, she sates her sweet tooth with a wrinkly brown thing that hangs from palms, can be mashed into a versatile creamy paste, contains vital nutrients and whose sugar content may measure a whopping 75 percent: the date.

Siegfried sells four varieties at the Davis Farmers Market—but she doesn’t grow them. Date palms are subtropical desert plants and, in California, do best in the arid inland climate near the Mexican border. Siegfried’s dates come from a 58-acre grove by the Salton Sea, where the blazing sun and burning sands could fool even the wisest date palm into believing it was still rooted back in the old country, in its native North Africa.

But Morocco was a fearful place of death for the medjool date in the 1920s, when a blight called Baioudh nearly wiped this variety from existence. Grove after grove fell victim to the rampant disease, and extinction looked possible. But before the last palms died, 11 uninfected shoots were sent to California in 1927. Here, the medjool thrived and so was saved. Today, it stands as among the most coveted and available varieties.

Siegfried reports that date demand is on the rise as more and more people do like she does and shirk sugar. And why shouldn’t they? For dates are full of dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin A, iron and other nutrients. Dates also have wonderful flavor: The Khasab tastes of grains and coffee. The medjool is a nutty mouthful of butterscotch. The so-called “honey date” tastes like the nectar of bees. The barhi, Siegfried’s favorite, ripens into a consistency as succulent, delicious and creamy as caramel.

Dates are, in fact, the sweetest fruit on Earth, phenomenal concentrations of calories born when cosmic and terrestrial energies converge at the top of 50-foot palm trees. Dates, like any fruit, are a miracle—and they put sugar to shame.