Ark of Taste
Phoenix dactylifera v. Empress
Date palms were domesticated in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, more than 5,000 years ago. It has long been one of the most important plants of the arid, desert areas of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia.
In the early 1900s, the USDA sent agricultural explorers abroad to bring back exotic foods to cultivate in the US. They began to import date palm offshoots from North Africa and the Middle East to the climatically similar desert areas in the Coachella Valley in California, that proved to be an excellent place to grow dates. In the first part of the 20th century the Middle East was very popular in American pop culture. In 1947 the Date Festival became an annual event celebrating the correlation between California and the Middle East. However, towards the end of the century political events (starting with the 1970’s oil crisis) strained the USA’s relationship with the Middle East, and the exotic fantasies once popular fell out of fashion. This date is a remnant of a time when the Coachella Valley looked to the Middle East for inspiration, and represents a debt owed by Californian agriculture to the farmers and orchardists of the Middle East, without whom this unique variety would not have developed.
Empress was developed in California from a seedling of Thoory Date variety. E K Davall planted on his property near Catherdral City, California around 1916. Although Davall sold his property and original plantings, he had previously started nearby a new garden transferring there his best seedling palms -including Empress. In 1955 Davall had about 15 acres with at least 50 palms in production.
The Empress is considered a mid-season ripening variety. The orange-yellow fruit stalks are exceptionally heavy. Fruits are large, oblong, somewhat pointed at the apical end, and may retain dry, light buff or straw color areas at the base. The fruit color goes from yellow, amber, to reddish brown. Empress dates have a soft flesh with a classic and balanced flavor, not too sweet and not too strong. They are firm and chewy.