Datilera Río Colorado: A Literal Oasis In the Desert

East of Mexicali, in the last stretches of Baja California before it runs into Arizona and Sonora, it gets so hot that nothing stirs during the afternoon heat. Siesta here is not some twee nod to times past; it's a survival mechanism in a place where the temperature hits 120ºF in July. That any food is produced here–that anything could be coerced to grow here–is a testament to the ingenuity of the residents.

State Highway 2–not the fancy toll road, but a regular state highway–east of Mexicali, south of the border city of Los Algodones, sweeps through increasingly beige and inhospitable landscapes, but just before the road swoops south to meet its federal counterpart near the Sonora border town of San Luis Río Colorado, the landscape erupts into palm trees planted in straight rows.

This is no desert-borne hallucination; this is Datilera Río Colorado, the largest date farm in Baja California.

Hundreds–thousands, seemingly–of date palms crouch low to the ground, trimmed to be a reasonable height while still remaining productive. The trees are kept watered by the Colorado River, or at least what's left of it once it's been siphoned off to within an inch of its existence by the increasingly thirsty residents of Southern California. A canal, straight as an arrow, provides the water the dates need to grow and produces a thin strip of green that stands out from the desert even in satellite photos.

White knit polyester bags hanging from the palms in season lend a slightly surreal effect, but they keep the birds and the wind from stealing the dates. At the margins of the day, workers collect the dates to be candied, coated, or just put into boxes as-is and shipped to not one, but two hungry countries.

All palm trees produce dates, but the Medjool date is the most coveted of them all and the pride and joy of the Mexican Northwest. These are beautiful dates, which retain a pleasing moisture even after drying, and are large enough to be split in half and stuffed with almonds; two–okay, maybe three–of the sticky fruits rolled in coconut are enough dessert for the hungriest adult. Most of the dates produced at Río Colorado are packed into flattish boxes that have been split diagonally into two compartments for extra structural support. A 5 kg (11 lb.) box costs US$40, prices that are less than half the cost of dates from Indio or Twentynine Palms.

A jar of Datilera Río Colorado's mermelada de dátiles–French-style date preserves–may be the single sweetest substance on earth; far sweeter than any agave syrup ever fetishized by some aging Laguna Beach hippie, sweeter than honey, sweeter even that those colored packets of fake sugar that have taken over coffee shops from here to San José del Cabo. It is almost too sweet to eat by itself on bread. A small spoonful rescues a smoothie made from slightly out-of-season fruit; whipped into cream, it lends an earthy, almost gritty flavor to crème Chantilly. The dates, cut up, make an astoundingly good adas polow, the Persian dish of rice with lentils, raisins and dates.

Unusually for farmers in Baja California, Datilera Río Colorado maintains an online presence. Their website is relatively basic, but the important thing is there: they have a US-based online store from which they sell the dates. You don't have to brave the insane, baking heat of northeastern Baja if you don't want to; for $5.99 shipping, your dates will arrive at your American front door. Theoretically, you could make arrangements for other products to be shipped by calling; the online store contains only dates.

Dalitería Río Colorado, State Highway 2, Los Algodones, B.C., Mexico. Corporate office at Av. Mariano Malee #32, Los Algodones, B.C., México. 011-52-658-517-79-48; datilerariocolorado.net.

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