PRICKLY PEAR FROM A TO Z: 26 THINGS TO KNOW
What is Prickly Pear? 26 interesting facts and figures about this delicious fruit used in several Mexican specialities and beverages.
Aztec. It is believed that the name of the ancient city of "Tenochtitlan" (today’s Mexico City) derives from "tetl" (meaning rock, stone) plus "nocthli", the Aztec name for this fruit: so, literally, "Tenochtitlan" would seem to mean "the place of the prickly pear at the foot of the rock". In fact, following a prophecy, the Aztecs left Aztlàn and settled in a sacred place which was supposedly announced by the vision of an eagle eating a snake on top of a cactus plant: this image is the symbol of Mexico City today.
Blend. The taste of the prickly pear is both strange and delicate, of varying intensities, recalling that of strawberry, water melon and honeydew melon, with notes of fig, banana and citrus fruits, as well as kiwi or persimmon.
Colonche. Also known as "cactus wine", this is an ancient Mexican beverage (typical of the State of San Luis Potosí), which is sweet and fizzy with a low alcohol content. It is made by fermenting the pulp and juice of prickly pears of the red “cardona” variety in wood barrels.
Distribution. Originating from Mexico, the prickly pear became naturalized throughout the Mediterranean basin, especially in Sicily, Sardinia and Malta, even spreading to Africa and the islands of Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius, Asia, Oceania and the temperate zones of America. Today, it is also grown in the United States, in Chile, Brazil, North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East and South Africa.
Eritrea. The prickly pear spread to the Horn of Africa between 1890 and 1940 with the Italian colonization: apparently the first cladodes to be imported came from Sardinia. Today, it infests entire mountains of the highland areas and its fruit is known locally as "beles": those who have tasted them say that the prickly pears of the orthodox monastery of Debre Bizen (close to Nefasit) are particularly sweet and juicy.
Fruit. Technically the fruit is berry, a sweet fleshy one with numerous seeds. The appearance, weight and size of the fruit vary according to its growth period. The first fruits are round and small (with a more concentrated and assertive taste), while the later ones are larger in size, elongated and pedunculated. The seeds of the fruit may also be used to make a type of flour (gluten-free with excellent nutritional properties: it is rich in iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium) and an oil (rich in linoleic acid and vitamins E and K).
Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés. The Spanish naturalist to whom we owe the first detailed description of the succulent bearing prickly pears: he described it in 1535 in his Historia general y natural de las Indias.
Huevos rancheros con nopales. A typical Mexican dish which – according to tradition – consists in alternate layers of tortilla, tomato sauce, fried eggs and more sauce (plus grated "cotija" cheese, lime, avocado and coriander). There is another popular version with sliced and grilled prickly pear cladodes, used in place of tortilla.
It ingredient? Prickly pear cladodes could be the next star of fine dining. In fact, the chefs are already using them in great quantities: from Oysters with prickly pear jelly and ponzu sauce at the acclaimed Nikkei restaurant (Dallas, Texas) to the Cladode confit with starred anise of the Truss & Twine in Palm Springs (California), as well as ice-cream flavours such as Nopales and lime from the Californian Puesto and Fried cladodes filled with cheese and mushrooms in hot spicy sauce by the Flora in Richmond (Virginia).
Junior League of Phoenix. One of the best recipe "bibles" dedicated to prickly pears is Pomegranates & Prickly Pears by the Junior League of Phoenix: it presents over 250 traditional or creative recipes ranging from salads and snacks to fine dining proposals (from starters to desserts). Another in-depth and well thought out recipe selection (starters, soups, salads, beverages, desserts, fancy breads and sweets) is the one signed by Joyce L. Tate, collected in a classic by the Cactus and Succulent Society of America: the Cactus Cookbook.
Kcal. 100 g of prickly pear "count" for about 50 kcal. The nutrition chart also informs us that the flesh contains a negligible quantity of fats and proteins, a fair amount of carbohydrates and is a valuable source of minerals (potassium, calcium and phosphorus) and vitamins such as A and C.
Liquors and beverages. These range from "tungi spirit" from the British Island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean to the Sicilian digestive liqueur known as "ficodi", without forgetting Malta’s ever popular "bajtra". The analcholic drinks lovers can try the S.Pellegrino Fico d'India e Arancia, a sweet and refreshing beverage mixing sweet orange juice with the flavour of prickly pear, in dazzling cloudy-rose coloured drink.
Miel de tuna. Typical of the Mexican tradition, this syrup is made by boiling prickly pear juice. Something similar is made in Sicily, in Italy, and it looks rather like maple syrup.
Nopales. Another term for prickly pear cladodes. To cook them, you need to remove all the thorns (as if you were scaling a fish) and then peel them. After which, it solely depends on your recipe: they can be cut into strips, diced ("nopalitos") or sliced horizontally. They may be eaten raw in salads or cooked in fish, pork or vegetable stews, but also boiled or fried, just as you would do with eggplants, or grilled, preserved in brine or vinegar. They are also used to make jams and candied fruit. And the most refined soups: such as Sopa de nopales by Angel Vázquez of the Intro restaurant in Puebla (Mexico), who adds chilli pepper, avocado, poached quail’s eggs and cojita cheese to diced cladodes.
Opuntia ficus-indica. The scientific name for this succulent belonging to the cactacee family. Native to Mexico, it was already grown and sold in the times of the Aztecs, who believed it was a sacred plant with symbolic values. We find evidence of its importance, for example, in the Mendoza Code dating back to 1540.
Pulp... addiction! Prickly pear pulp makes excellent jam, jellies and preserves, sweets and refreshing or digestive beverages. It is also excellent when reduced to a simple puree, whether sweetened with sugar or not: at Oaxaca, for instance, they serve it in spoonfuls as a topping for horchata (barley water).
Queso de tuna. Literally meaning "prickly pear cheese": it is actually a sweet Mexican paste obtained by reducing the juice of this fruit to a solid state by slow boiling. Then, when cool, the semi-finished product is repeatedly bashed on a stone and then packaged in rectangular boxes. It may also be aromatized with hazelnuts or pine nuts.
Risky business. Never touch a prickly pear with bare hands, even if it already seems to be "dethroned": some of those tiny, very fine spines with which it is covered – in tufts – can remain attached to the peel and they are very sharp and unpleasant. It is advisable when peeling it, to use rubber gloves all the time.
Sicily. Straw yellow in colour (but pinkish-beige when crystallized): a rather special Sicilian prickly pear honey is produced by the bees in the month of August in the areas around Caltanissetta and Palermo. Rare and tricky to produce because it tends to crystallize almost immediately, (even when still in the honeycomb at times), it has a delicate scent and a very sweet taste with somewhat bitter notes recalling the cladode. It teams up well with mature or intensely flavoured cheese.
Tuna. This is the Spanish word for the prickly pear fruit: hence the terms "queso de tuna" and "miel de tuna" (see above).
UFS. A recent study carried out by the Biotechnology Department of the South African University of the State (Bloemfontein) has thrown light on the health-giving benefits of prickly pears: as well as the many nutritional properties of the pulp, the flowers can be used for preparing herbal teas and infusions and the seeds for producing oils and flours. A special flour can also be made from the cladodes: it is gluten-free, rich in fibre and has proved to be excellent for making bread and cakes.
Varieties There are three main varieties, distinguishable thanks to the colour of their pulp: yellowy-orange (yellow peel, with green streaks), red (ruby red pulp and peel) and white (creamy white pulp and green peel). If you happen to visit Sicily where prickly pears enjoy DOP status, they are respectively called "sulfarina", "sanguigna" and "muscaredda". If, on the other hand, you are in Mexico, the choice is still wider: there is the small red "juana" (or "roja"), with a sharp taste, and the large "roja pelona", which has no thorns and tastes like kiwi; there is the sweet and juicy green "cristalina" (or "zarca": recalling white peaches), and the vivacious "naranjona", with an almost spicy taste of honey which recalls a mature persimmon at times. Then there are the small wild varieties called "xoconostle" which are green in colour with a sharp taste (of this variety, even the peel is added to stews), and the red "cardona", with a bittersweet taste that is similar to a Luxardo cherry. Floral hints characterize the orange variety known as "cuerno de venado", while the yellow "platanera" is more tropical in flavour (with hints of banana).
Www.inmexico.com Six intriguing ideas for transforming prickly pears using the art of mixology: from a refreshing sangria to a pink margarita, to a Mezcal mule, you will find them all here.
XVth and XVI Centuries. It would appear that the prickly pear cactus landed on the Old Continent from Mexico in 1493 when Colombo made his return to Lisbon.
Youtube. On the well-known web platform, there are more than 31,000 results relating to "prickly pear recipes", you'll surely find the how-to video you're looking for here.
Zeffirelli. The prickly pear often appears in the external shots of the film on the life of Jesus, as a characteristic feature of the Palestinian flora at that time. However, this is an incredible and constantly repeated anachronism that even the Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli failed to spot when filming his “Jesus of Nazareth”.