Tunisia, the Mediterranean country par excellence, is not only a producer of citrus fruits and olives, which are the prerogative of the Mediterranean region, but also, thanks to the macro-climate oasis, a large producer of dates. Among 3500000 tons of dates produced all over the world, Tunisia produces 80,000 tons, is the world’s largest exporter of dessert dates, of which 46% goes to European markets.
From Tozeur to Nefta, the oases of southern Tunisia looks like mirages. This is where we develop Deglet Nour, the most prestigious date. It is also the most-exported Tunisian variety. Its name means “fingers of light” because it is almost transparent, revealing its nucleus. Although it has unique properties, Deglet Nour is a capricious variation that requires a lot of care during its cultivation. There are other varieties of dates, sooner or later. In Tunisia, there are over 250 varieties with very different sizes, often oblong, sometimes spherical, from yellow to almost black through all shades of amber red or brown.
Deglet Nour is the inheritor of a long line of juicy dates obtained as a result of a long selection process over the centuries. The cultivation of dates was born more than 6,000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia, on the outskirts of the fertile crescent, on the border between Africa and Asia. The spread of palm culture in the Maghreb accelerated along with the Muslim conquest between the 7th and 14th centuries on the roads of caravans of merchants and pilgrims traveling to Mecca.
Thousands of gardens
In the oases, dates were grown, but also fruits, apricots, pomegranates, figs or orange trees and packets of vegetables, cereals, barley, and alfalfa as feed for sheep and goats. The three floors of crops have now been abandoned for greater profitability, but older palm groves are still divided into thousands of small gardens irrigated by canals, that spread life in an oasis, an oasis of peace and freshness …
Deglet Nour is the name of different dates. The Latin name of the date palm is Phoenix dactyl, which means the Phoenician tree with fruit similar to the fingers. The date tree is not a tree, but a kind of large herb from the monocot family, which reaches up to 20 m in height and can live for a hundred years. Its trunk or stalk is prolonged thanks to the activity of the final bud hidden in the heart of the hand. The stem has no bark, it is simply covered with the basis of old fallen leaves. The roots are very deep to reach the water surface.
Palm grove, female territory
There are male hands and feminine hands, but you can not distinguish them before flowering. These are scales, brown envelopes that appear under the palms that characterize the sex of the palm tree. They fill the male, long and thin in the female. The male is enough to pollinate fifty females. In this way, the palm grove is for the most part of the female territory, each tree is able to produce from 10 to 20 regimes each year in clusters and up to 100 kg of dates that are well fertilized and irrigated. To multiply plants, sowing is avoided because each nucleus produces a new variety. Young palm groves are made of a certain type of cuttings, taking off the roots that grow at the base of the young female foot chosen in the desired variety.
The horticulturist is an acrobat
To describe the cultivation of the date palm we are talking about horticulture. In the wild, pollination takes place by means of wind and insects carrying pollen, but it does not fertilize all flowers. The Mesopotamians invented artificial pollination. Even today, in spring, men climb barefoot and without a rope, at the top of each palm, in order to slip in each feminine span of a male spikelet. By the end of the summer, climbers are still climbing the palm trees to limit the number of sculptures that are carved. They are then hung by placing them on the palm of your hand. If the rain threatens with late harvesting, the horticulturist again rises to cover every diet with a mesh or a sulfate paper or plastic cap. This is especially the case for valuable varieties, such as Deglet Nour.
Sets of daily allowances
In autumn, manual collection of dates continues. It starts in October and ends at the end of November or in December in the case of later varieties. Collectors are an acrobatic setting on the trunks, by five or six, to organize a chain of descent patterns of dates that will be sold in branches as in the case of Deglet Nour. Those sold in bulk are thrown on a tarpaulin and then sorted on the ground before placing on the market.
From green to golden-yellow or amber
Contrary to popular belief, the date is a fresh product. It does not undergo the drying process. After fertilization, the young fruit is green and round like marble. In the summer the date reaches the final size. It is then smooth and yellow, rich in vitamins, but very difficult to taste. It receives the warmth of summer and often autumn so that it slowly ripens on the tree. It softens and becomes blond in Deglet Nour or amber-brown or black depending on the variety. The sugars contained in it undergo a transformation. Gradually, the date dries and mixes on the tree.
Cake, syrup or jam
Then the early dates of the change were very desirable when they arrived when the granaries were empty. Varieties of soft dates, when they are not eaten fresh, are rolled to get a cake, syrup, or jam. In the case of Deglet Nour exports, dates can dry on the tree a bit longer than on the local market, because it facilitates their conditioning and maintenance.
To feed and get drunk …
If the date is very rich in sugar, it has very low-fat content and is one of the fruits that provide the most fiber. It occurs in all traditional dishes, such as couscous and cakes. Very caloric, it is the perfect food for physical exercise. Its sweet and fragrant juice, rich in sugar and minerals, is a refreshing drink that resembles the taste of coconut milk. Hardly collected, it ferments and leads gently to drunkenness without being careful …