INDIO — The winter harvest season is to me one of the most picturesque times of year to visit the Coachella Valley. Gone is the intense summer heat and its lingering desert haze, replaced instead by balmy breezes and brilliant blue skies. Palms laden with the year's date crop stand at attention across the desert like rows of green feather dusters on parade. I walk among the towering trees listening to the breezes move through the fronds, while the sun's rays play a symphony of gold on the heavy bunches of ripe fruit.
I like to observe the painstaking harvesting process--one that still relies on the skill of experienced hands. In many Coachella Valley groves, this is the job of pickers, or palmeros, who climb up the trees and attach themselves to the trunk with a heavy chain laced through their picking belts. Wielding a machete, the palmero slices off a bunch of ripe dates and lowers it, attached to a large metal hook, to a partner waiting below. Clouds of dust engulf the earth-bound workers as they manually shake the dates loose into a large bin. As the harvesting trucks purr their way through the grove, tree limbs stripped of dates remain scattered on the ground like skeletal bouquets.
Indeed, palm trees and date-bearing palms especially, have always had special meaning for me. When I was growing up in Casablanca, my parents sometimes took my brother and me to spend a weekend in Marrakech, a historic town in southern Morocco. To this day when I visit, I plan my arrival for sunset, when the town's graceful, ocher-colored minarets emerge like beacons from the 3,000-acre grove of date palms encircling it. During the fall harvest season, vendors sit in the shadow of the graceful, towering trees, hawking bunches of freshly picked dates to passers-by.
Much the same atmosphere prevails throughout the Coachella Valley that cradles Indio and the appropriately named town of Mecca, where dozens of varieties of dates can be purchased at roadside stands. And it is there that I like to explore not just the expansive groves themselves (the area produces 95% of all the dates consumed nationally), but what there is to eat.
Recently, my husband and I spent the day cruising through the valley from Cabazon southeast to Indio and on to Thermal. We meandered through the ritzy desert outposts of Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells to the older, more modest farm communities of Thermal and Coachella, tracing an L-shaped itinerary of about 50 miles through the heart of California's date country.
Next weekend is a good time to explore, as well as to eat, when the National Date Festival at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio (Feb. 18-27) presents a plethora of events, including camel races, costumed vendors and a date cook-off.
In the Coachella Valley, the date of choice is the semi-soft, amber-colored Deglet Noor (or "date of light" in Arabic), sold nationally as the California date. It accounts for 95% of the harvest here, but it is accompanied by the sweet and soft, caramel-like Halawy (which means sweet), its cousin the Khadrawy (green) and, finally, the small and golden, semi-soft Zahidi (nobility). To me these all present unique and separate opportunities for eating and cooking and the perfect excuse for a drive.
While dates are mainly thought of in the United States as a kind of exotic snack, they are an integral part of the cultural lore of North Africa and the Middle East. There, tradition dictates that a platter piled high with the sweetest and plumpest dates--usually Medjools--accompanied by a glass of milk, be offered to guests as a sign of welcome. In Morocco, they also enter in the preparation of a wide variety of sweet and even savory tajines, or exotic stews. Thoughts of these familiar specialties were dancing in my mind as I drove past the landmark forest of eerie windmills marking the approach to the Coachella Valley that signaled the first stop in my quest for California dates at their source: Hadley Fruit Orchards in Cabazon.
For many travelers, Hadley's provides the introduction to locally grown dates, including Medjools and the soft, dark amber Barhee, in addition to the more common varieties. Sampling is encouraged and, in my case, lead to the purchase of sticky date coconut rolls ($2.99 for 12 ounces), diminutive date nuggets ($1.99 a pound) and a coarse, caramel-colored date sugar, among other date-based products. Hadley's banana date shake, rich and smooth and very sweet, was hearty enough to sustain this urban nomad and a companion for several hours (large, $2.40; small, $2.20). Those who want to take home a taste of the California desert can order one of Hadley's lovely gift packs.