Articles in Fruit
Three cheers for the nationwide revival of the all-but-lost American hard cider tradition! This renaissance is an outgrowth of spreading interest in locally sourced products and farm-to-table cuisine. Where there were perhaps a dozen artisanal hard cider makers in 2000, today there are 400, with new farm-to-bottle cideries opening every day.
More from Zester Daily:
» Skip the bubbly and ring in 2015 with hard apple cider
» Cheering the revival of artisanal hard cider
» Polar vortex got you down? Ice cider will lift your spirits
» Apple cider gets dressed up for holiday parties
Tom Wark, a longtime wine industry publicist, launched “The Cider Journal” last year to track artisanal cideries and give vent to his passion for the movement. “These are complex, interesting drinks that are worlds away from the sweet, artificial tasting stuff I used to think was hard cider,” he says. “There is a growing band of dedicated craft cider producers across the country. Some have been at it for years, others not so long. But all of them are artisans.”
From the vast apple orchards of the Northwest to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, here is Zester’s look at some of our favorites.
Main photo: The Rev. Nat West, right, an ordained minister, preaches the gospel of good cider and is renowned for exploring the boundaries of cider making, starting from his basement and now flowing from 12 taps at his northeast Portland, Oregon, taproom. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media
I’ve reached that point of summer where the mere thought of flipping on the oven and heating up the kitchen to bake cookies, pies or cakes makes me sweat.
Rather than risk turning into a puddle over the next picnic or potluck party dish, I’ve shifted into low gear and started whisking, rather than cooking, my summertime treats.
Topping my roster of simple desserts that can be effortlessly whipped together is syllabub. The name syllabub may conjure up visions of windswept sand dunes, dusty camels and “Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights.” As exotic as it sounds, this sweet comes not from the sun-drenched desert but instead from Britain.
In 16th-century England, syllabub was a frothy beverage made of milk and sweet wine or cider. Because people liked the foamy head more than the liquid itself, syllabub eventually discarded its drink status and took on the role of a creamy dessert.
What makes syllabub an ideal summer treat is its simplicity. You can assemble it in a few minutes with either a whisk or an electric hand mixer. Just beat 1 cup of chilled whipping cream, a quarter cup of sauternes, muscatel or other sweet wine and the same amount of sugar together until soft velvety peaks form. Once you see those gentle mounds, you’ve got your syllabub.
To vary the taste, you can replace the wine with flavored rums or liqueurs or fruit juice. To keep its romantic desert image intact, present your syllabub in colorful North African tea glasses.
Another easy English favorite is the fool. As simple as its name sounds, the fool consists of mashed raw or cooked fruit folded into homemade whipped cream.
In the United Kingdom, fools usually contain gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb or plums. I find the bold look and piquant flavor of blackberries work extremely well here. When spooned into dainty etched glasses, fools become an elegant last course, one that leaves guests talking for days about your ethereal creation.
Fruit and cream
More from Zester Daily:
If you choose not to swirl mashed fruit through your whipped cream, then you’ll have the next offering, fruit and cream. Yet another straightforward treat, fruit and cream consists of alternating bands of fresh or cooked fruit and lightly flavored whipped cream. Berries, particularly blueberries or elderberries, taste fabulous in this recipe.
When making the whipped cream for this and for fools, you should beat the cream until stiff, glossy peaks form. The whipped cream in these two confections should possess a firmer consistency than that of a syllabub. Because the bands of white and purple — or red or blue or whatever color fruit you choose to use — look so beautiful together, I also serve this repast in a clear tea or juice glass.
Reminiscent of the syllabub, coconut creams feature yogurt, shredded coconut and cream of coconut. Don’t confuse cream of coconut with its thinner, less flavorful relation, coconut milk. You will find both in the international aisle of most grocery stores and in Latin American, Asian and Caribbean markets.
To make coconut creams, whisk together 2 cups plain Greek yogurt, 3 tablespoons sweetened, shredded coconut, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cream of coconut and an equal amount of sifted confectioner’s sugar. Divide the coconut creams among four small bowls or glasses and refrigerate for 30 minutes. When you’re ready to serve the coconut creams, top each with a sprinkling of fresh diced kiwis, chopped pistachios or almonds, or grated bittersweet chocolate.
Searching for an uncomplicated, dairy-free dessert? Look no further than the gelée. A gelatin-based treat, gelée frequently features champagne, Madeira or other sparkling or fortified wines.
To some, this may sound suspiciously similar to a Jell-O shot. How often, though, do you see that frat house staple served in a filigreed glass or garnished with a spice-infused sauce? Further distancing gelée from college fare is the inclusion of whole or pureed fruit.
Of these effortless goodies, gelée will require the most time. Even so, the moment that you shut the refrigerator door, your work ends. To make a gelée, whisk together 2 .25-ounce packets gelatin, 1/3 cup water, 1 cup wine, 1 to 1 1/4 pounds fresh fruit and 1/3 cup sugar. Pour the concoction into small bowls or glasses and refrigerate it for a minimum of three hours before serving.
During the final sultry days of summer, spare yourself the kitchen heat and whip together some of these quick, cool sweets.
Prep time: 25 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 1/2 cups blackberries
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Place the blackberries, 1/4 cup sugar and lemon juice in a bowl and stir to combine. Allow the berries to macerate for 15 minutes, stirring periodically, until they release some of their juices.
2. Put half the berries in the bowl of a blender or food processor and purée. Pour the purée over the whole berries and stir the mixture together.
3. Using an electric mixer, beat the cream until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and vanilla extract and continue beating until stiff peaks take shape.
4. At this point, fold in the berries. Because I prefer a dryer fool, I strain off and reserve most of the juice and just add the berries and strained purée to the whipped cream. I later drizzle the juice over the individual servings of fool.
5. If you’re serving this right away, spoon equal amounts of fool into 4 bowls. Otherwise, cover and refrigerate the fool until ready to serve. Note that when refrigerated, the fool will keep its shape for 2 to 3 hours. Make and serve accordingly.
Main photo: Layers of berries and whipped cream make a refreshing summer dessert. Credit: Thinkstock
One of China’s many gifts to world cuisine is the peach, and with the season in full swing, now is the time to celebrate this most ancient and beloved of fruits. Peaches have been an important aspect of traditional culture in China, and were first described in the agricultural manual, “Xiaxiaozheng,” written almost 4,000 years ago.
The Daoists considered them important symbols of immortality, and other works celebrate their association with youth. For example, in the “Shijing (Book of Odes),” a compilation of poetry and song from about 3,000 to 2,500 years ago, the peach tree is compared to a young bride with brilliant flowers, abundant fruit and luxuriant leaves:
The peach tree is young and elegant;
Brilliant are its flowers.
This young lady is going to her future home,
And will order well her chamber and house.
The culinary uses of peaches in China are generally more varied than they are in the west. We tend to limit our use of peaches to sweeter dishes, such as pies, cakes, cobblers and fruit salads. Additionally, we use them to add a sweet flavor to oatmeal and other cereals, generally served at breakfast.
In China, peaches are featured in both sweet and savory dishes. From the familiar peach-based duck sauce, and savory and spicy sauces for meats, to pickled peaches and even half-sour peach kebabs, peaches are everywhere. Peaches in China also tend to be eaten when we would consider them to be a bit under-ripe and hard. So, even in sweeter dishes, they often have a slightly sour tang to them when compared to sweet peach dishes in the west.
Recent archaeological analysis of peach stones (pits) has concluded that peaches were first domesticated in China’s lower Yangzi Valley beginning almost 8,000 years ago. In the area just a little south and west of Shanghai, feral ancestors of today’s peach (Prunus persica) were consciously selected for fruit size and taste, time from germination to fruiting and length of fruiting season.
More from Zester Daily:
» Go beyond pie: 7 ways to use summer peaches
The domestication process was complete in China by about 6,700 years ago, and the peach was introduced to areas of coastal Japan by about 6400 years BP (before the present). The larger, sweeter cultivars spread quickly and were commonly eaten across China by about 4000 BP. Domesticated peaches were first seen in India by about 3700 BP — a tribute to the power of early Silk Road trade.
This new analysis from a team of international scientists is significant and challenges conventional wisdom that the peach was domesticated in northwestern China. It also questions accepted ideas about how early in the history of agriculture that fruit trees became important crops. The earliest changes from feral fruit type appears almost 1,000 years before the beginnings of rice farming in the Yangzi Valley when rhinoceros and elephants were still common wildlife in the area.
Globally there are more than 2,000 varieties of peaches that can be harvested from late spring through the end of October. Of these, 300 are commonly grown in the United States. Peaches are classified in three groups: freestone, clingstone and semi-freestone. The classifications refer to the way the fruit’s flesh clings to the pit.
Clingstone varietals ripen between May and August, and have yellow flesh that turns mild red to bright red close the pit. Clingstones also have a soft texture, and a high sugar and juice content, making them good for eating raw. Freestones, on the other hand, have firm texture, relatively low level of juiciness and mild sugar content, making them ideal for baking. Freestone varietals bear fruit between late May and October. The semi-freestones combine two of the most prized qualities of clingstones and freestones — a relatively high sugar content and juiciness along with flesh that doesn’t cling to the pit.
Varying by geography
Peach varieties tend to vary a great deal by geographical area. In the Central Atlantic, most farms are now featuring Glenglo and Early Red Free peaches with Red Havens ripening in the next week or two. August promises the greatest variety of peaches in this area with peaches available for almost any use.
The global produce market makes many varietals available at supermarkets regardless of the local fruiting season. The most interesting additions to these markets has been the flat Saturn and Jupiter peaches, also called doughnut peaches. These are freestone varieties with low acidity and high sugar content, best eaten raw. Interestingly, flat peaches (Peento variety) were introduced to the U.S. from China in 1869, but the idea of a flat peach didn’t catch on with consumers until the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Chinese stir-fried peaches
This is an authentic, savory way to enjoy the fruits of the summer. For a real Chinese touch, use an under-ripe peach, or one with a low-sugar, high-acid content for a sweet and sour treat.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 6 to 10 minutes
Total time: 16 to 26 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 to 3 teaspoons lightly roasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons sugar (Demerara or palm sugar is best)
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 to 3 tablespoons grated ginger
1 to 2 tablespoons minced garlic (or Chinese chives)
1. In a small bowl or cup, combine the soy sauce, hoisin, rice wine, rice vinegar and sesame seeds. Add sugar. Mix well and set aside.
2. Thickly slice peaches and remove the stones. You may skin the peaches if you wish, but it is not mandatory.
3. Heat the sesame oil in a wok until it just starts to smoke, and add the ginger and garlic and stir for 1 to 2 minutes until partially cooked. Add the peaches and stir until well coated. Cover and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring several times, until the peaches start to soften. It may be necessary to cook longer if the peaches are very firm.
4. When the peaches are partially cooked, add the soy sauce mixture and stir well to coat. Cover and cook until peaches are of a desired tenderness, about 2 to 3 minutes longer. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Chinese stir-fried peaches. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Kelley
If you’ve been almost anywhere in Europe this summer, you’ve probably had moments of cowering inside, shutters closed, windows open, fans on. (We don’t do air conditioning hereabouts, at least not in our homes.)
In France, train tracks have buckled and tarmac has melted in temperatures that have topped 107 F. In England, during Wimbledon, local tennis hero Andy Murray battled it out on Centre Court with Mikhail Kukushkin in 105-degree temperatures as ball boys dropped like ninepins in the heat. Bonn, Germany, was one recent day hotter than Cairo, Istanbul, Phoenix and Miami.
With this kind of weather, the idea of hot food is a serious turnoff. Cool is where it’s at. And you can’t get much cooler than the following flowery ice bowl. It takes a little time and attention to make, as it must be frozen in several stages. However, the result is startlingly gorgeous, especially when filled with fresh summer fruit or sundry scoops of ice cream or sorbet.
Selecting your bowls
More from Zester Daily:
First, select your bowls. You’ll need two: one bigger than the other, so the smaller one will sit inside the larger. The ones I’ve used here are about 8 inches and 10 inches in diameter (20 centimeters and 25 centimeters).
If you have two metal bowls, things will go even faster, but this combo of a ceramic mixing bowl with a smaller metal one works just fine. The point is their difference in size: You’ll be filling the space between the two with water and flowers, and the space must be sufficient to make thick ice walls for your ice bowl.
Also, make sure you have space in the freezer for your two bowls sitting one inside the other. (A cue to use up all that produce frozen last summer?)
Choosing your flowers
Next go out and pick (or buy) some flowers — from your garden or terrace if you have one, or even wild ones, which give a graceful, homey touch.
The flowers should not be too big (a maximum of 1 inch across), and you’ll want to use a good mix of colors. Geraniums work beautifully, either the predominantly red and purple Pelargonium/window-box varieties or the blue or pink perennial ones. Lavender is great, as is the deep egg-yolk yellow St. John’s wort, aka Hypericum. A few rose petals won’t go amiss, and if you have some lacy, lime-green flowers of Alchemilla mollis, throw in a few of those too. Basically any small colorful flower or petal will do.
Starting your ice bowl
Pour about 1 1/2 inches (3 centimeters to 4 centimeters) of water in the bottom of the larger bowl and place a few flowers in the water. They will float around a bit, so don’t fret too much about placing them neatly and symmetrically; they will sort themselves out. In any case, this layer will be the base, so the flowers will be barely visible once you’ve filled your ice bowl. Put the bowl into the freezer and leave until solidly frozen.
Creating the bowl shape
Once the base is frozen, remove the bowl from the freezer and place the smaller bowl on top. It should sit with its rim slightly above the outer bowl, because it’s sitting on the frozen base. Make sure the smaller bowl is centered, and place a can of something heavy in it so it doesn’t float when you add more water.
Add about 1 1/2 inches of water and drop some flowers between the two bowls, poking them down a bit into the water. Freeze again. Repeat this procedure once or twice more until the water is up to the rim of the outer bowl.
The point of doing this bit by bit is to allow each layer of water and flowers to freeze firmly each time; if you poured it all in at once, all the flowers would bob up to the top, which would spoil the effect.
Once you’ve completed the process, keep the ice bowl in the freezer until needed.
Removing the ice bowl
Finally comes the tricky part — you need to get your creation out from between the two bowls. The first step is to remove the small bowl (after you’ve removed that can of something heavy). Pour some hot water (tap-hot is enough) into the smaller bowl and leave for a few moments, just long enough so you can lift it out. Now fill a sink with hot water and lower the big bowl into it. Keep testing until the ice bowl has melted enough that it’s freed itself from the sides of the bowl.
Once the ice bowl has been freed, lift it out and place on a napkin-lined tray or plate (so it doesn’t slide and/or leak).
Now you can fill it with whatever suits your fancy: a mixture of soft summer fruits or a colorful selection of ice cream and/or sorbet, for example.
Main photo: A flower ice bowl filled with summer fruit and elderflowe
It’s stone fruit season! Stone fruit includes peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots and cherries, all those summer tree fruits with a pit in the center. These are fruits that can be used in sweet treats, of course, but also in savory meals. Here are five recipes to celebrate stone fruits. Try them all with your family while these fruits are at their peak.
Keen Peachy Smoothie
Start off your morning with a peach smoothie made from real fruit and yogurt. Use fresh peaches in the summertime, since they’re in season now. During the rest of the year, you can use frozen peaches so you can have a taste of summer all year long.
You can use any combination of peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots or cherries in this sweet, tangy recipe. This salsa can be used to top yogurt or waffles at breakfast, or for tacos and quesadillas at lunch or dinner. Or, just go classic and scoop it up with a chip. The salsa can also be made a little spicier by adding jalapenos, if you like.
Frozen Fruit-Salad Pops
These homemade popsicles can be made with any fruit you like, but since stone fruits are in season, it’s a perfect time to use them. Chopped-up fruit frozen in white grape juice makes a sweet treat for hot days. Plus, these pops are so beautiful! (But not too beautiful to eat.)
This dessert uses two stone fruits: peaches and cherries. Of course, you can use your favorite stone fruit instead. (Or even strawberries or blueberries — we won’t tell!) A cobbler is kind of like a giant, fruit-filled biscuit, and it makes a perfect treat after a lazy summer day.
Here’s a creamy shake made from cherries and dates. Dates aren’t stone fruits — but they do have pits! They’re also super healthy, and sweet, which adds natural sweetener to this smoothie.
More from Zester Daily:
Main photo: Frozen fruit pops are a perfect outdoor treat. Credit: Copyright Carl Tremblay
Watermelon’s dribble-down-your-chin deliciousness adds an exclamation mark to any summer picnic. Memories of seed-spitting contests followed by a run through the sprinklers are the essence of childhood.
But there is so much more to love about watermelon. It is summer’s most versatile food. Dress it up or keep it simple. Soups, curries, salsas and salads; watermelon’s savory sweetness deserves a place at every meal. Let your imagination go!
Whether you use the fruit in cocktails, healthy smoothies or a simple Mexican agua fresca with watermelon juice and a squeeze of lime, drink in the goodness of watermelon.
Check out these 10 killer ideas; you will never see watermelon the same way again.
More from Zester Daily:
Main photo: Chocolate-dipped Watermelon slices sprinkled with sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media
Infusing vodka with fruit is perfect for summer and holiday entertaining. Colorful and easy to make, all you do is place the washed fruit into a clean glass jar, pour in the unflavored vodka, cover and store until the fruit has transferred its flavors to the vodka. The resulting infused spirit can be sipped by itself or used in a deliciously refreshing cocktail. That’s it. Wash, pour, cover, wait and enjoy.
Flavored vs. infused
You may have seen vodkas labeled as infused with lemons, oranges, cranberries, pomegranates and raspberries. In point of fact, they are actually flavored artificially. The taste of those vodkas ranges from passable to medicinal.
Creating your own flavors allows you to control the quality and the strength of the infusion. Using a farmers-market-fresh approach will bring a farm-to-table excellence to your cocktails.
How long to infuse?
Generally speaking, soft fruit needs less time to transfer its flavors. Strawberries for instance need only a few hours or a day at most. With quick infusions, taste frequently and strain out the fruit when you have the flavor you want. When the fruit is removed, the infusion stops.
With a firmer fruit such as cherries, infusion can take longer. To make the Italian liqueur limoncello, lemon peels remain in the vodka for several months. When making umeshu, Japanese plum wine made with green plums called ume, the plums take a year to complete the infusion process.
When making infusions, no need to use premium vodkas. The fruit so dominates the flavor, buying affordable vodka is definitely the way to go.
Infused vodkas can be used as the basis of any number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy them over ice, neat or with a mix of soda water. Simpler is better. The result is deliciously refreshing, especially on a warm summer day.
More on Zester Daily:
Buy good quality, unblemished cherries, preferably Bing cherries because they are fat and sweet. The cherries can be pitted, in which case they will give up their flavor more quickly. But over time the cherries will become less firm. I prefer to keep them whole so they can be served as an adult dessert.
Use glass jars, any size you have on hand. Wash the jars and tops in hot, soapy water and rinse well. Quart juice or canning jars work very well. Use the cherries separately as a dessert by themselves, with plain yogurt or as a topping on ice cream.
The infused vodka can be served cold as a shooter with a cherry as garnish or in a mixed cocktail of your choice. Leave the cherry whole or finely chop when using as a garnish.
Add more vodka when needed to keep the cherries covered. Keep refrigerated.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: a week to a month
Yield: two quarts
3 pounds fresh cherries, preferably Bing, washed, pat dried, stems removed
1 quart unflavored vodka
1. Examine each cherry. Reserve for another use any that are blemished or over ripe.
2. Remove and discard any stems.
3. Place the whole cherries into the jars.
4. Fill with unflavored vodka.
5. Cap and place in the back of the refrigerator.
6. Serve cold. Pour the infused vodka into small glasses garnished with cherries (whole or finely chopped) from the jar.
7. Add vodka to keep the cherries covered. Refrigerate.
Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine
Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot and umeshu is a liqueur. Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan.
Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Ripe ume should not be used.
Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile
Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, dull green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.
After a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon.
Only use unblemished, unripe fruit.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: one year
Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated umeIngredients
2 pounds ume or green plums, washed, stems removed
1 pound Japanese rock sugar
1.75 ml unflavored vodka
1. Wash well a gallon glass jar.
2. Place the ume into the jar.
3. Add the rock sugar.
4. Pour in the vodka. Stir well.
6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for a year.
7. Serve ice cold with macerated ume whole or chopped up as garnish.
Top photo: Bing cherry-infused vodka in quart jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.
China Ranch 100 years ago
In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”
The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.
More from Zester Daily:
» Remember baking date and nut breads in tin cans?
» Why make dates super-sweet? Really, it makes scents
» Sugar rush: Dates a sweet pick to break Ramadan fast
» Going locavore in the high desert at Coppa Cafe
China Ranch today
The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.
Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.
The fruit of family labor
Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.
The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.
Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.
Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel