It may be the best gazpacho with paisan hand-crushed tomatoes or pate de foie gras — “the geese were lovingly killed” — and the talking head insists you have to go to Spain or France to get it. However good the dish presented, they will know somewhere that produces the ultimate gazpacho or foie gras quite unlike the perhaps superb presentation in front of them. Location and ambience alters the perception of a dish, but in some cases, it is simply the desire to top a dinner competitor’s story.
Fortunately in the matter of dates and the myriad confections based on it, I can happily announce that the prospect of peace and blessed silence is at hand for the coffee tables of London at least.
Located on a corner of New Bond Street in London is a surprisingly minimalist and elegant coffee shop. A universe away from the company’s headquarters in the heat and dust of Al Ghat in Saudi Arabia, the quiet and discreetly efficient shop is the flagship UK store for Bateel dates. Open since August 2011, our gustatory cognoscenti would delight in it as for once, the products here really do taste the same as at source on the farm in Al Ghat. I have personally checked both!
European manager Alfie Hunter is a brisk and knowledgeable South African who presides over the proceedings, greeting regulars by name and with an eye constantly on the displays of dates and pastries and the quality of the comestibles.
Though compact, the shop is but the tip of a dateburg, so to speak. From here, Bateel organizes the corporate, diplomatic and private clients and the cool immaculately clean tiled basement hums, amid the spicy odor of green coffee beans and cardamom for ghawa (Arabic coffee), with the business of checking quality and packing dates for delivery.
“One of the things we aim for in our boutique stores is to ‘wow’ the customers as they walk in,” said Hunter. To most people, the date is a humble product. “We showcase it and through our branding and image, elevate it to the status that give it its true worth.”
In the UK particularly, dates have traditionally been a Christmas time product. Compressed and sugared, they were eaten under sufferance by adults and eyed with the deepest suspicion by generations of children.
Bateel dates are central to the company’s drive to enter the gourmet market. A range of gourmet products bearing the Bateel imprimatur supplements the dates and date products. There are some unique and intriguing combinations of date with other seemingly unrelated products, date mustard being one. Just a tiny percentage of date added to carefully sourced French mustard imbues it with a richness that complements white meats, such as chicken, perfectly.
“Dates give a subtle enhancement to the gourmet products,” said Hunter. “In most cases if we didn’t tell you there were dates involved, you probably wouldn’t know, but the subtle difference is all that is needed.”
Bateel has come a long way since it began selling dates. Hunter said that it has become a date-based gourmet food company with a range of specialist products. Four years ago, the Bateel Café came into being where the marriage of dates, chocolate and coffee took place and is prospering.
“Dates and ghawa coffee are a traditional combination, but we serve a fresh cold date with espresso and the customers are very keen on that.”
Bateel is very coy about revealing their production process for their dates. However, it involves strictly organic farming methods, labor intensive farming and remarkable careful selection and processing. For example, as contact with water can damage dates very quickly, they are air blasted to remove dust and then cleaned with dampened cloth and air-dried. This is an expensive process but the result makes for an exceptional quality of product.
And the dates really are fresh. Flown in from the farms in Al Ghat, chilled and soft, the dates are quite unlike dates at the dried “tamra” stage, the objects of childhood’s justified suspicion.
“We pick the dates at the ‘rutab’ stage where they have to be cleaned and eaten within a few days or they go off and begin to rot,” explained Hunter. “The real test of quality is not to compare dates at the beginning of the season in September, but in May when other producers’ end of season stock has dried out. Then you see why we take so much trouble.”
Fresh rutab Sukari dates in the Bond Street store are but a couple of days or even hours off the tree, sweet and the over-sugared confection glistening in syrup usually found in supermarkets. These are moist, soft and succulent. Dark brown rich Khidrdi dates with their toffee like consistency vie with the bi-colored Sagai and line the cooled cabinets in the café together with the highly-prized Ajwa.
These are dates as most in the UK have never experienced, but if Alfie Hunter has his way, this is about to change.
You will know it has happened when the dinner bore falls silent.