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Following the Tunisian date trail

Qin Xie
31 January 2014
Following the Tunisian date trail
Visiting Tunisia to track down prized dates.

Dates are probably one of the most underrated fruits around. Once prized by nations for its sweetness and nutritious pulp, it's fallen to the wayside to make room for trendy super foods.

But it could be said that dates were the original super food, having been cultivated for some 5,000 years. They are nutrition-rich, with an abundance of iron, calcium, Vitamins A and C and are said to slow the development of heart disease and cancer. Yet they seem to be rarely acknowledged in the UK beyond being the perfect way to break a fast or as a moist-maker in cakes and puddings.

To learn more about dates, I travelled to Kebili in Southern Tunisia.

Tunisia is one of the major producers of dates with production mainly in the south of the country, towards the rugged landscape that leads to the Sahara dessert. There, 350 different varieties of dates are currently being cultivated. They vary in size, shape, colour and flavour but almost all of them are harvested between October and January.

[Try dates in this traditional Tunisian recipe: sticky, crunchy makroud]

Small pockets of lush green date palms intersects the salty terrain, making the most of the scarce ground water to form the oasis. Similar to cocoa plantations, the top level foliage is made up of the date palms while the undergrowth is filled with banana palms and other fruiting vegetation. At the heart of the bigger oasis, towns and cities have built up over centuries to take advantage of this unique ecosystem.

Kebili was such an oasis.

The town recently hosted the region's second International Festival of Dates, incorporating the national date festival that had taken place in nearby Douz for the previous three decades. This year, the three-day festival offered visitors the opportunity to watch traditional performances, taste local foods and learn about date cultivation and gradation.

The festival was not only a celebration of dates and their products but it was also a chance for producers to gather and share knowledge.

At the festival, I learnt that Deglet Nour, or date of light, is the most commonly available variety in Tunisia as the date palm which produces it is extremely productive. The date itself, a golden caramel nugget that's plump with sweet, fleshy fruit, is reminiscent of persimmon and simply delicious.

Unfortunately Deglet Nour is also extremely susceptible to pests and disease. One of the biggest challenges that date palm growers faced was the Red Palm Weevil.

Originating from India, the weevil affects all palm trees by boring holes into their trunks and infesting the tree until it eventually dies. The insects have no natural predator in Tunisia and cannot be treated chemically as the dates are produced organically. The only method available to the palm growers would be containment.

After crossing the Chott el Jerid, a large salt lake, I arrived at my next stop - Tozeur.

Tozeur is an oasis known for buildings decoratively fashioned with sand coloured bricks, which absorbs the light of the sun. The bricks themselves are unique in that they're made with ashes of palm trees - just another one of the many by-products of date production.

Tozeur is also the home of Eden Palm, a museum dedicated to history and culture of date production.

According to my guide at the museum, palms can start life as a seed, and therefore create a new variety, or as an offshoot from an existing palm, and therefore be considered a clone. The new palms are either pollinating male plants or fruit-bearing female plants though it's impossible to tell which the tree will become until it flowers.

The palm workers will generally live amidst the trees in modest palm huts so they can water the palms and fertilise accordingly. In the dessert, there might only be three to five days of rain a year so water becomes a very important resource.

From about 15 years old, the palm trees will become productive with fruit. From there on, the cultivation becomes extremely labour intensive. The workers must scale the trees and fertilise them by hand. At harvest, they must scale the trees once again to collect the fruit, which might weigh as much as 10kg per bundle.

Back in the UK and playing with dates as a culinary ingredient, I never realised how hard they were to come by. But then I suppose that's the thing with treasured foods - they're hard to produce but the result is worth all the effort.

If you want to follow the date trail in Tunisia...

Return flights to Tunis

Tunisair operates seven flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £169, including taxes. www.tunisair.com.

Accommodation

Rooms at the three star Mehari Hotel in Douz start from £30 per person, per night, based on two people sharing a double room on a bed and breakfast basis. www.goldenyasmin.com/mehari-douz/

Rooms at the five star Regency Hotel in Gammarth start from £42 per person, per night, based on two people sharing a double room on a bed and breakfast basis. www.regencytunis.com.

Additional information

For all your travel needs and for information on what's happening in Tunisia, please visit www.cometotunisia.co.uk.

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