Hundreds of date palm farmers from Al Gharbia, Al Ain, Swaihan, Abu Dhabi and further across the UAE arrive every day at the Liwa Dates Festival, bringing freshly picked ratab (half ripe dates) from their orchards, hoping to convince the industry's experts that theirs are the tastiest, healthiest, best looking and best produced dates.
For the 11th consecutive year, the festival of ratab harvest is being celebrated. It is organised every July by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee - Abu Dhabi. Every day throughout the week-long programme, judges look not just for products that are best in taste, but also for the best grown fruit.
At the Liwa Dates Festival – that began on July 22 and runs until July 30 in Abu Dhabi - five of the most popular varieties are competing in the ratab beauty contest. These include kunaizi, khallas, dabbas, boumaan, farth, along with nukhba, which is the best mixed-variety date.
"During daytime, we receive dates directly from farmers. By evening we make a pre-selection. The next day morning we inspect the farms of the finalists and that evening we announce the winners and award them,” said Dr Samir Al Shakir, international consultant of palm dates technology, member of the judging committee at Liwa Dates Festival.
Each date variety makes for a different competition category and the top 15 places in every category are awarded cash prizes from Dh125,000 to Dh5,000, except for nukhba competition, which receive from Dh200,000 for the first place to Dh6,000 for the 15th position.
To qualify for any of the ratab competitions, farmers must submit dates from their own UAE-based farm, harvested this summer. Each participant is allowed to enter a maximum two ratab competitions.
"Each participant must enter between 10 and 15 kilograms of dates into the competition," explained Dr. Shakir.
These are usually presented into two traditional Emirati hand-made baskets. All entries are lined up on long tables in a private room, where they are closely inspected by the judges. The short-listed finalists' baskets are then moved onto a public display area, where all visitors may marvel at them and sometimes even taste them.
For the nukhba competition, participants must bring at least 15 varieties of dates, but not more than 20.
Each variety must contain at least three kilograms of dates. For all ratab contests, the dates must be neither fully ripe, nor unripe, just half ripe.
"For every competition we receive dates from around 300 farmers and we select only around 20 finalists. Just by looking at them, we can pick up the best baskets. It is the size and the general condition of the dates that make them stand out to begin with," said Dr. Shakir.
"We then start a thorough investigation, looking at the dates' weight, doing size measurements and checking its health. Based on all of this, we give a grade for each entry," he added.
The grade represents only 50 per cent of the final score, though, the other 50 per cent coming from the farm' s condition.
"The next morning we go to inspect the farm, making sure, first of all, that the dates we receive actually come from the farm owner. Just by looking at the palm tree, we know if they were cut from there or not. We also take into consideration the general keep of the farm, if materials are recycled, if the palm trees are pruned, if the irrigation is eco-friendly and the use of fertilisers - we prefer and encourage farmers to use bio-organic ones," explained Dr. Shakir.
For fair judging, inspectors do not know which dates belong to which farm, and it is not uncommon that the best looking ratab from the finalists drop to bottom positions because the farm was found in a poor state.
Apart from ratab, Liwa Dates Festival also has competitions for locally produced mangoes, lemons and mix-fruit baskets.