Date palms are one of the oldest fruit trees continuously cultivated by humans. They are also incredibly popular, even among the Romans. Here, a recipe for stuffed, honeyed dates you can make in your own kitchen.
A photo of a pile of the dates I prepared on a plate.
Some plants cultivated today were only domesticated recently. Broccoli, for example, was first grown in its modern form in the 15th or 16th century in Italy, and Brussels sprouts, its brassica cousin, in the 18th century. Others, like dates, have been planted for millennia. A timeless emblem of life in the desert, the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is one of the single oldest fruit trees cultivated by humans.
Recent genetic studies of ancient date cultivars show they originated over 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia around the Persian Gulf, a region crisscrossed by trade routes. Such movement through the ancient Near East allowed the date to travel around western Asia and the Mediterranean, becoming incredibly widespread.
By the time of the empire, date cultivation had been mastered, as Pliny the Elder describes in great detail in his work Naturalis historia. Several locations had become hotbeds for date growing, including Arabia, Crete, Assyria, and, most importantly, Judaea. A collection of especially fruitful date plantations sprung up in this area along the fertile Jordan Valley, as referenced in the writings of notable authors like Theophrastus, Josephus, and Galen. Pliny writes the following about the dates grown in Judaea, particularly those of Hiericus (Jericho):
The more remarkable quality of these is a rich, unctuous juice; they are of a milky consistency, and have a sort of vinous flavor, with a remarkable sweetness, like that of honey.
The sweetness of dates didn't go unnoticed by Roman cooks. Sugar, nowadays a universal sweetener, was only known in a botanical sense to the ancients. Along with honey and various grape syrups, dates added necessary sugariness to dishes. Also, Judaean dates apparently kept very well on shelves and in transit, a key feature considering date trees grown in Rome wouldn't bear fruit.
Despite this, some patricians still planted date trees in the peristyle (courtyard) gardens in their villas as a status symbol — palms were tricky to get a hold of, and I think they look amazing!
Palm fronds became symbolic of victory; in fact, the word palma became a synonym for victory itself. Martial writes that lawyers who won their cases would decorate the doors of their homes with palm leaves (Epigrams VII). Victorious generals would also don the toga palmata, named for (or possibly emblazoned with) the palm.
With all this significance, dates most definitely were an exotic step above typical orchard fruits like apples, pears, and figs, and eating them was a way to flaunt wealth. Here is a recipe from Apicius, a classical cookbook known for its indulgence, instructing us how to turn dates into a dessert dish:
Dulcia domestica: palmulas vel dactylos excepto semine, nuce vel nucleis vel pipere trito infercies. Sale foris contingis, frigis in melle cocto, et inferes.
Homemade sweets: stuff little palms or dates with nuts or pine nuts or ground pepper. Salt the outsides, fry in cooked honey, and serve.
Why would the name of this recipe specify that the stuffed dates were homemade? It could contrast a simple dessert like this with more complex ones, meaning that most sweets were not prepared by the average cook at home. Much like how gourmet confectioners work today, candy-making was a specialized discipline best left to professionals. That doesn't mean all desserts were of exquisite quality, just that the factories whence so many modern candies come didn't exist 2,000 years ago. This recipe is a simple one, so it definitely could've been made by an average cook.
Something else notable about this recipe is how it's prepared: the nuts go inside the flesh, replacing the pit. This presumably was a gag dish the host would serve as part of the secunda mensa in a feast.
I could picture a scenario like this: the guests would unknowingly bite into one of these dates and quickly recoil, shouting. Horrified that they broke their tooth on the stony pit of the date, a result of the cook's carelessness, they would suddenly realize the fruit was filled with nothing but nuts. A bit of a cruel party trick, if I say so (not nearly as bad as smothering your guests with flower petals)! Anyhow, here is my take on the recipe from Apicius:
¼ cup of walnuts
¼ cup of pine nuts
¼ tsp of peppercorns, or about 12-16
2-3 dozen dried dates
Salt, to taste
Grind the pepper and nuts in a mortar to form a crumbly paste. If the dates haven't been pitted, pit them, then stuff them with the nut paste (I used the butt end of a chopstick). Pour honey into a saucepan and bring to a low boil, then drop the dates in. Let them cook for 3-4 minutes or so, stirring frequently so all get covered in honey. The outer skin of the dates may come off while boiling, but don't fret. Scoop the dates out of the pan, let them cool for a couple of minutes, then serve.
Photos of a Roman peristyle garden from the House of Menander, Pompeii (where palms could've been grown); the ingredients; and the honeyed dates on a plate.
Before I describe my thoughts on the dish, I have several suggestions for changes you could make depending on what ingredients you have available. First, the proportions of the nuts can be fluid, so long as you use about the same amount total. The types of nuts can also vary. The original recipe doesn't specify — I chose walnuts, but you can add almonds or pistachios or other nuts depending on what you have available. And finally, I used Deglet Noor dates, which are smaller, so you'd want to use fewer if you're cooking with a larger variety like Medjool.
Wow! This dessert was delicious. I found it incredibly sweet, but not sickening, which is, in my opinion, just how a dessert ought to be. It does this, too, without using any cloying artificial sweeteners. The honey beautifully candied the dates, and the salt and pepper helped add depth to the flavor. This recipe makes use of a wide variety of Roman garden products — nuts, honey, and fruit — and is exotic, sweet, and refreshingly natural, all at once.