Food: Date lines

Why Annie Bell is sweet on dates. Photograph by Adrian Burke: All that was left of Christmas were the strawberry creams and coconut centres of the Quality Street, and the Cellophane-wrapped box of Eat Me
How well I recall the cardboard glove-box of dates as a child. It would sit on the sideboard in the dining room and never get opened, despite the plea of "Eat Me". There it stood as Christmas Day came and went and as the remainder of the twelve days passed, until down came the tinsel and all that was left were the strawberry creams and coconut centres of the Quality Street that no one wanted to eat, and the Cellophane-wrapped box of dates.

Yet it never stopped my mother from buying them again the following year. If you did venture past the Cellophane, you found two lines of syrupy dates, sticky with glucose, nestling in a doily lining with a white plastic fork in the shape of the one the devil holds in his hand. You can still buy these dates - my local supermarket has them decoratively stacked high- rise - but I won't be buying them.

I think the turning point in our household came with the large bag my husband brought back from the Sahara - along with various anecdotes. Muhammad the Prophet is said to have existed off dates and water alone during his time in Medina, and they are enormously sacred to Arab people who liken them to man. "The date palm resembles man by its erect position and its height. If its head is cut off, it dies. If its heart is exposed to too great a strain, it perishes. It is not the same with man?"

Even without such analogy, the way in which the palms send tap roots down to the level of subterranean water is enough to render them exceptionally valuable. And the stifling shade they offer beneath their tall canopy of leaves protects other trees and plants - grapes, pomegranates, figs, peaches, apricots, almonds, wheat and barley. If this all sounds a little vegetarian for your liking, the Berbers believe dates go especially well with dog meat.

My own soft spot is for Medjool dates, the largest of the desert varieties. Soft and fudgy, with a wrinkled skin cast with a white bloom, they are not overly sweet. Medjool often come from California and are sold loose in boxes, having been harvested by hand. Deglet Nour is the other popular eating variety, named after one of the wives of the prophets called Noura who always did her washing in the same spot. Legend has a palm tree growing there which produced the finest fruit, and this became known as Deglet Nour.

There are many harder date varieties with different sugar properties that are grown specifically for baking. These are the ones you find in solid blocks that need soaking. But even with the tendency for fresh dates to burn, I prefer them in cakes and desserts to the others.

I quite often buy my dates from Middle Eastern shops. It's the kind of thing the owners pride themselves on - a large box of the fattest fruits you have ever seen loosely jumbled together in a box lined with waxed paper. However, I don't care too much for the hard, sandy yellow dates sold on the vine, although I am told this is how the Lebanese like them. I do, however, like the treacly, jet-black date syrup. It is especially good poured over ice-cream and pancakes with butter or runny cream.

You would expect the cult status of sticky toffee pudding to have done a lot for the sale of dates. Although the shop-bought versions are studded with raisins, the real thing is specked with the mushed-up brown of these pappy fruits. And if, like me, you are fond of date cakes generally, you are probably quite glad of the leftover box of Eat Me.

Date and honey madeleines, makes 15-20

Traditionally, madeleines are baked in a special tray to give small scallop- shaped cakes, which are fluted on the underside. They can be baked in any small cake tins, such as fairy-cake tins, alternatively, you can make them in miniature to eat as petit fours.

75ml/3fl oz water

110g/4oz pitted dates, chopped

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 large eggs

25g/1oz vanilla or caster sugar

finely grated zest of a lemon

2 tbsp

clear honey

50g/2oz self-raising flour

a pinch of salt

1/2 tsp baking powder

50g/2oz ground almonds

110g/4oz unsalted butter, melted, plus 15g/1/2oz for greasing

icing sugar for dusting

Bring the water and dates to the boil in a small saucepan and simmer for 4 minutes until the dates turn quite mushy, then stir in the bicarbonate of soda. Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a bowl until they are almost white, then add the lemon zest and honey. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together and lightly fold it into the egg mixture, also the ground almonds, taking care not to overwork. Gently fold the cooled, melted butter and the dates and their water and chill the mixture for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 190C (fan oven) /200C (electric oven)/400F/gas mark 6. Brush the insides of the cake tins with a little melted butter. Spoon the mixture into the prepared moulds, filling each one two-thirds full. Bake the madeleines in the oven for 8-10 minutes until golden. Run a knife round the edge of the tins and turn them out on to a wire rack. When barely cool, dust them with icing sugar and eat as soon as possible.

Ginger, almond and date meringue, serves 4-6

115g/4 oz whole almonds, blanched

140g/5 oz dates, stoned

85g/3 oz preserved ginger

4 large egg whites

225g/8 oz caster sugar

300ml/1/2 pint double cream

Preheat the oven to 170C (fan oven)/180C (electric oven)/350F/gas mark 4. Coarsley chop the almonds and toast them in the oven for 10 minutes. Chop the dates and ginger.

Stiffly beat the egg whites, gradually adding the sugar, two tablespoons at a time, beating for 20 seconds between each addition. The resulting meringue should be stiff and glossy.

Fold the dry ingredients into the meringue, and spoon the mixture into an 8"/20cm cake tin with a removable collar. Bake the cake for 35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean from the centre. Run a knife around the collar, and cool the cake.

Whip the cream and spread it over the meringue. Chill until you are ready to serve it.

Date chutney, serves 6

8oz dates, stoned

1 small onion

2 pieces preserved ginger

4oz/115g dried apricots, soaked

11/2 oz/ 45g sultanas

1/2 oz/15g caster sugar

knife tip cayenne pepper

5 fl oz/150ml white wine vinegar

1 level tsp sea salt

Chop the dates, onion, ginger and apricots. Place all the ingredients together in a pan and just cover with water. Gently simmer the mixture for 50 minutes, interrupting it occasionally to make sure it is not sticking on the bottom of the pan. Keep a particularly careful eye during the last 10 minutes as it dries out, and stop cooking it while there is still some liquid evident