Baking Business chats to South Australian date grower dave Reilly from Gurra Downs Date Company, to find out why dates are so underutilised yet absolutely ideal as an ingredient for bakers and pastry chefs.
What makes the South Australian climate ideal for growing dates?
Dates are best grown in semi-arid and arid areas, which represents a pretty big footprint across Australia. The trees do take in other states: the top of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory. Western Australia is famous for it. It’s got to be hot and it’s got to be dry in summer and autumn.
What are some of the challenges of growing dates?
We had to get our own private pump to keep the trees properly irrigated. We’re not on the trust system where there’s usually hundreds of growers on a single line. We are actually responsible for our own infrastructure. That was the catalyst that drove us in the direction of date palms about 20-odd years ago, because date palms are extraordinarily salt-tolerant. We also found out there were no trees available to buy in Australia. They’re a very difficult tree to manage throughout their growing years. They have thorns on them, they’re prickly and they come at you from all angles.
What types of dates do you grow, and which are the most popular?
We grow three classifications of dates: we have the fresh [khalal] date, which is like a crunchy, juicy piece of fruit that is more like an apple; ripe [rutab] dates, which are the ones you would recognise in the supermarket and then we finish with cured [tamar] dates, which are the very dry ones that you can put in your saddle bag and ride across the desert with. At the moment our most popular ones are the ripe dates – they are selling strongly.
Medjool dates have become really popular recently as a sugar replacement. Has that had an impact on your business?
Yes, the benefits of which are still to come to us totally. What we have is natural fruit sugars with very good nutrition, with no preservatives because the sugar levels are around 50 per cent. It’s a binding agent as well, so you can stick ingredients to it, and its stays and keeps its shape. We are making date paste; we’ve got the equipment for it now. We are open for markets because at this stage it’s just an idea, we haven’t fully commercialised it. (You can check out the website or Facebook page to find more info about Gurra Downs date paste.)
What’s something about dates that not many consumers know or understand?
It’s slow-release energy. You’re not going to have ups and downs, spikes and lethargic states. If you eat them regularly, you find that you can go right through to lunch time and after lunch, you’ve still got a bit of spring in your step. Also, they are a very good source of fibre that slow down energy release. That’s why it has sustained people of the desert for centuries.
What are some of the measures you use to achieve organic, premium produce?
We start with clean material, so every tree we’ve bought into the property has come in via tissue culture and we receive the plants in sterile conditions. There are no pests or diseases. If there is fruit sitting around on the bottom of the tree, moths, grubs and bugs will breed in them.
That will start massive problems, so what we have is 220 geese that parade around and get to the lower or dropped dates. We recycle those nutrients back into the soil, so there is no opportunity for pests.
In regards to weeds, if the rainfall is heavy and weeds are growing faster than the geese can eat it, we have a flock of sheep. Also, we have a small amount of specialist ducks, turkeys and guinea fowls trained for snails and earwigs. We’re living in a jungle.