x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Separating prize dates from the duds

The Liwa Date Festival occupies a peculiar place in Emirati life: part agricultural fair, part trade expo, part national flagship.

The Liwa Date Festival occupies a peculiar place in Emirati life: part agricultural fair, part trade expo, part national flagship. This year's celebration is dedicated to the centenary of Sheikh Zayed the Great, which gives a preliminary sense of the fruit's importance in the culture. Where else could a market fair double as a celebration for a national hero? But in Liwa, dates are a serious business, and they get a security detail to match.

Even a day before the festival's royal opening, the hangar-sized marquees are packed with police and private security guards. Metal detectors line the entrances, as do signs prohibiting the usual range of airport no-nos, plus whistles, newspapers, sticks and metal objects. It seems like a lot of trouble to protect a collection of palm-leaf baskets and some dioramas of village life. Yet the competition areas are even more tightly controlled. Date growing can bring out fierce rivalries, whose intensity is inevitably heightened by the promise of a Nissan car for the top three growers in each category, so it is important that submissions be placed beyond the reach of skulduggery.

There is a conspicuous police presence in the receiving bay, and each palette of fruit is given a barcode so that its grower's identity is obscured from the judges. Then the growers are dispersed and their produce is scrutinised for its eligibility under the competition rules. The first kind of date to be assessed is the sweet, yellowish Bou Maa'n. Many types of dates are sweet and yellowish, of course, but try telling that to the army of volunteers - mainly date farmers themselves - who carry out the first vetting.

Abdullah al Qubaisi, communications director for the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), takes me on a tour of the reject pile. "This is something that looks like Bou Maa'n but is not," he explains, "so this is out. This is a mixed basket..." He rummages in a punnet containing dates of slightly miscellaneous sizes, and frowns. "They're cheating, basically." The table before us is littered with fragments of date flesh. "Forensics," he says with a grin.

Before they can get as far as the judges, the dates are screened for size, degree of ripeness, freedom from pests and "apparent defects" as well as for several other indicators. Only then do they receive the attentions of Moubarak al Mansoori and his judging panel. The judges move between laden tables in a secure pen, radiating that mixture of solemnity and hauteur which is everywhere understood to stem from the deepest connoisseurship. They work for it, too. Today the judges fan out across the country to inspect the farms from which all submissions originated.

"The competition is 50-50 - 50 per cent for the dates and 50 per cent for the farm itself," Mr al Mansoori explains. "It has to be clean; the irrigation system has to be very good. They have to be controlling pests." What kind of people serve as judges? I ask. "PhDs," he says. They need to be thorough. Intense competition among oases has led to some dirty tricks in the past, hence the holistic approach to judging.

"It's not about how nice it looks," Mr al Qubaisi explains. "Before, we had incidents where people would participate with really fantastic, unbelievable dates. But you would not eat them. Who knows what they did to make it this way?" Indeed, for the outsider, one of the strangest things about the date festival is the amount of cutting-edge agri-technology one comes across. Along with the standard funfair attractions, including bouncy castles and stalls selling folk art, one finds, at the UAE University stand, row upon row of vibrant shoots in test tubes. The Ministry of Environment and Water has a display of writhing red weevil larvae, along with their recommended pest-control agent: "entomopathogenicnematodes", which appear to be some sort of microscopic worm. There are some dead weevils, too, to show you the desired effect.

It is sometimes said that if you want to like food, it is best not to find out too much about agriculture. Consider the heroism of the competition judges, then, who are obliged to do both. Of course, it helps that the dates taste pretty good. The fifth Liwa Date Festival runs until July 27 elake@thenational.ae