Sunday, 23 July 2017

A Dabble At The Dhaid Date Festival

Sharjah's inland town of Dhaid has an annual date festival. Who knew? We were wending (actually, waddling or wobbling might be more accurate) our way home after a particularly pleasant stay at the Hatta Fort Hotel and caught an overhead billboard advertising the Dhaid Date Festival. And we thought, 'Why not?'

We'd been promising ourselves a stay at the newly revamped JA Hatta Fort Hotel since we played chicken there a few weeks ago. I can only report that we had a fabulous time. Quirky, independent and offering service standards and food quality that I would argue go beyond any other hotel in the UAE, the hotel's facelift has preserved the retro charm of the place and yet brought it up to date. It's all rather chic and we went large for the weekend. Hence the waddling.

Part of the reason why Hatta made us fatta...

Dhaid is an oasis, fed by water from aquifers and the man-made network of aflaj irrigation tunnels running down from the nearby Hajar Mountains. It has long been so, reports from ancient Gazetteers such as old 'mutton chops' Lorimer put Dhaid as an important centre for agriculture and the coming together of the inland and coastal tribes. Even today, it's a notable agricultural centre. So the idea of a Date Festival not only makes sense, it quite tickled us. Anticipating a mixture of Killinascully meets Craggy Island's Funland, we made tracks Dhaidwards.

This is the second year of the Festival, which takes place in the Dhaid Cultural Centre. The hall is decked out in shell-scheme and carpets, with a stage and seating as well as a raised diwan area. The stalls are a wonderful mixture and we wandered, wide-eyed around them chatting to a wildly eclectic mix of people. There were date traders, farmers, agriculturalists and, gloriously, apiarists aplenty.

You'd be amazed at the sheer variety of dates grown in the UAE (one of the world's leading producers of dates, if you but knew it) and they were all on display at the festival, from pick and mix stands selling loose varieties through to enormous weighed bunches some ranging above 50 kilos.

We chatted about date palm propagation (as one does) and sampled dates from farms all over the UAE, learning our klas from our medjoul. Everyone was very shy but very friendly and we got the feeling that foreigners taking an interest was a rare and welcome surprise. But the high point for us wasn't the dates, but the honey. Sarah's dad keeps bees and bottles his own honey and we had already come across the bee keepers of Dhaid, but the date festival had brought a handful of colourful figures from further afield. One chap was selling wild honey from the RAK mountains, eye-wateringly expensive, black as night and gloopy.

Then we came across Mr Honey. A bee-keeper with 500 hives in Al Ain and RAK, Ahmed Al Mazrouei cut a genial figure as he showed us the different qualities of honey he'd spun out the combs he'd lifted from his hives, from his black mountain honey through single flower varieties. Dipping little plastic spoons into the jars, he took us on a tour around some of the most amazingly flavoured honey we'd ever encountered.

He had started the whole thing with six hives. Now his two sons work with him and he runs a delivery service through Whatsapp (you can find him on Instagram, too!)

Ahmed Al Mazrouei

Entranced, we bought a little jar of the black stuff for Da back home - honey so thick it piles up when it's dropped from a spoon back into the pot, tasting darkly of liquorice, molasses and deep caramel. I wish we'd bought another jar for ourselves, but now we've got contacts, baba...

A final whirl through perfumes, palm frond weaving and organic herbs and we found ourselves back out in the sunshine, blinking and very, very glad indeed that we'd taken the opportunity to drop in and say 'Hi'...

It'll be on again this time next year. I'd heartily commend a visit, too!

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