Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Report: Looking for a Hot Date?

A visit with Bautista Family Organic Date Ranch in the Coachella Valley

KCRW Good Food Producer Gillian Ferguson shares highlights from farmers’ markets around Los Angeles, along with tips from chefs and growers on how to best use what’s in your basket.

If you had to guess what content you might find at the website you might not immediately think of organic farming, but click on the url and a video of second generation date farmer Alvaro Bautista is the first thing you see. The video (now with 782 views on Youtube) follows Bautista fifty feet in the air as he effortlessly shimmies onto palm fronds and armed with a spray bottle, a stapler, and paper bags proceeds to hand pollinate his date palms. He wears no harness or rope, yet looks as comfortable as an Olympic platform diver, at peace lounging in the canopy of his family’s 500 date palms in Mecca, California.

Coachella Valley’s two most well known exports are macramed festival fashion and dates. And just like those fringe-clad festival goers, date palms thrive in the desert heat. In her book Dates: A Global History, Iraqi native Nawal Nasrallah quotes an old Persian saying, “A date palm is at its happiest when its feet are in water and its head in heaven’s fire.” It’s no surprise that the Coachella Valley, once a desert oasis with ample groundwater reserves, was the perfect environment to mimic the fertile crescent where the date is said to originate. The area surrounding the valley remains the largest date growing region in the country, though Arizona date farms have proliferated in the last few years.

The popular Medjool is often referred to as the “Cadillac” or “king” of dates due to its oversize supple fruit and incomparable flavor, but this week at Los Angeles farmers markets, the date to look for is the Barhi. Only available for a few weeks, look for pale mustard colored clusters still clinging to the vine (unlike other varieties, fresh Barhis are sold on the stem). This week’s harvest will be hard like an apple, and though edible, the crunchy fruit can have a slight tannic flavor. For a more jamlike texture and sweetness, place the dates on a countertop and allow the fruit to gradually soften as it turns from a firm burnt yellow to supple brown. Taste the dates at every stage; some chefs enjoy the astringent early fruits, other prefer the purgatory of half soft, half crunchy.

While the beautiful Barhi vines are addicting when plucked from their axis, they make better still lifes than cooking ingredients. Suzanne Goin’s seminal cookbook Sunday Suppers at Lucques features a cluster of the plump yellow dates on the cover, but the salad, tart, and shake recipes inside opt for Deglet Noor and Medjool varieties. Goin, like many other chefs in town, has been shopping at Bautista Family Ranch since Alvaro’s father purchased the ranch in 1999. Josiah Citrin depends on Bautista dates when he makes Melisse’s sticky toffee pudding. Dreux Ellis of Café Gratitude puts it simply. “He’s the best,” he says of Alvaro.

Bautista grows seven varieties, hence the web address. Brown sugar lovers steer towards Khadrawy dates while caramel fans will prefer the more complex Halawy variety. Try them all next time you’re at the market. Alvaro is always happy to share.

Where to buy first of the season dates in LA: Bautista Family Organic Date Ranch (Wednesday Downtown Santa Monica, Saturday Santa Monica Pico, Saturday Torrance,Sunday Santa Monica Main Street, Sunday Beverly Hills and Sunday Hollywood), Flying Disc Ranch (Wednesday Santa Monica and various Central and Northern California markets) and Dates by Davall (Wednesday Santa Monica, Saturday Pasadena, SaturdayTorrance and Sunday Hollywood).