Dates are a big deal in the Middle East. Evidence of their cultivation has been traced to 7000 BC. The prophet Muhammad gave them a good plug in the Koran and they’re an important part of the Muslim diet during Ramadan, when they’re often eaten in the evening to break the fast.
To be perfectly honest, the only time I come within cooee of a date is at Christmas when someone always manages to produce a box of them that gets picked over but never finished. All that changes in Oman.
Centuries ago here, oil was extracted from the humble date and then poured, boiling, on to the heads of enemies through wonderfully named “murder holes” in their many forts.
And if that’s not impressive enough, who was the genius who first took a date, removed the pip, replaced it with an almond and then rolled the whole thing in sesame seeds?
Our group is sitting in the living room belonging to a wonderful chap called Mahsood when this revelation occurs. Mahsood is a good friend of our guide, Said Al Salti, and has invited us to break bread with him in his home.
Resplendent in an immaculate white dishdasha and mussar head scarf, Mahsood has supplied a feast but it’s the sesame dates that stick in my mind. First, because the mind boggles at the idea of the boredom and work involved in replacing date pips with almonds – surely it can’t be mechanised – and second because they are delicious.
I later learn that you can also buy them covered in chocolate, but this strikes me as the date equivalent of the turducken, and to be avoided at all costs.
A few days later we are lucky enough to be in Nizwa, the ancient capital of Oman, on market day. There is a permanent souk around Nizwa Fort (our main reason for being there and, yes, it has several murder holes) but once a week there’s an early morning cattle-and-goat market just outside the souk walls.
This once-a-week market is an age-old, dusty and wonderfully raucous affair in which potential buyers watch sellers, all in traditional Omani garb, parade their animals around a circular pavilion with a raised platform in the middle. It reminds me very much of watching betting that goes on at a racetrack, a sort of organised chaos that you can’t make head nor tail of, but it doesn’t matter because it’s fun to just experience it.
We visit the fort, of course, but there’s also time to check out the date market, a sort of souk within a souk piled high with dates.
Nizwa sits about 140 kilometres south-west of Muscat, the current capital, and is the centre of, and a main market for, a large date-growing region. And it shows because the place is groaning with them.
There are piles of loose date varieties, including Brny (a date in search of a vowel), Fard (a sweet variety with small seeds and soft, dark brown skin) and “dates with sesam” at just 1200 Omani Rial per kilo (about $4.50).
There is, it seems, nothing the Omanis can’t do with the eight million trees and 60 different varieties of dates in their country. Apart from the mountains of loose dates, there are boxes of white chocolate and coconut date mamoul (a sort of sweet cookie stuffed with, you guessed it, dates), mamoul stuffed with dates and flavoured with aniseed or cinnamon, and beautifully packaged “luxury dates”.
Finally, for those of you with a fort to defend, there are many jars of date syrup. Just heat and serve (if you like dad jokes, this is also known as a hot date).
Emirates is currently flying from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane to Muscat via Dubai. Visit emirates.com for flight and COVID-19 details.
Intrepid Travel runs an eight-day Discover Oman tour that starts and ends in Muscat and takes in fishing villages, souks, the oasis of Wadi Bani Khaled, a night in a desert camp in the Wahiba Sands. It costs from $3630 a person twin share. See intrepidtravel.com/oman
Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.