The jujube: a good luck charm

An old gentleman who lives near me always says that the jujube – or the red date – brings good luck. “Let’s hope,” I always reply, laconically. I do set some store by his words, though: everyone needs a bit of good fortune, and we country-dwellers perhaps need it more than most. Our family home, which should have been completely restructured long ago, was surrounded by these knotty, spiny, fruity plants (scientific name Ziziphus Jujuba), and in October they would put forth their lovely crimson drupes, always so sweet yet somehow slightly tart. After all this time, I still don’t know how to judge whether jujubes really do bring good luck: as always, it’s our point of view and interpretation that gives a different slant to the truth, one way or another.

I’ve had enough time to observe these plants up close, learning to love them, seeing them grow, picking their fruits even though I would often get cut and scratched. It’s certainly a happy few who know this ancient fruit well, even if most of us might know the slightly empty expression “andare in brodo di giuggiole” – which in English means to jump for joy. It conveys a certain sweet happiness, but little more than that.

Few people know jujubes because they are not a widespread plant. They have a complex maturation and development. Originally from China, where they proliferate much more widely, they came via the legendary Silk Road, first to Syriaand then Mediterranean Europe. In the huge Mediterranean basin, two places stand out as prime jujube areas, both of them Italian: Calabria and Tuscany.

We don’t know why the jujube pops up so often around Tuscan farmhouses. Yet it is true: walnuts, figs and jujubes are their traditional plants. We can get a liquor out of the red dates, that aforementioned brodo di giuggiole (jujube juice); we can also get a jam, maybe mixed in with some quince. But more often, we eat the dates fallen fresh from the tree, slightly rough and dried out; or we eat them straight from the branch, like cherries, taking care not to scratch ourselves on the thorns.

They’re incredibly good for you: on average they contain 20 times the amount of vitamin C you find in any type of citrus. And vitamin B. And a great many minerals, like phosphorus, magnesium, and iron. And quite apart from all that, they taste fantastic too. They savour of a wistful farewell to summer, partly because they make you think of apple, cherry and dates all mixed into one, and partly because they don’t keep. They go bad extremely quickly, so you can’t waste any time in eating them. In fact, you should really eat them the moment you pick them, a delicious embodiment of panta rei(everything passes) and carpe diem.

Like figs and many other similar species, jujubes have a long window of maturation, and don’t all ripen at the same time. From late September to the end of October, I’ll eat about twenty or thirty a day, and I’ll always think of that old gentleman. I look at the jujube trees, from the saplings to the fully-fledged adults; I look at their spines, that prickly face they put on. Maybe, I think to myself, they’re thought to bring good luck because they’re among humanity’s oldest plants, capable of thriving even in pretty lifeless soil.

To the eyes of a poor farmer of yesteryear, that’s definitely good fortune. And to my eyes too.