The prickly pear origins
This exquisite fruit has arrived in Europe with Christopher Columbus, returning from the Americas. Instead, in 827, the Saracens imported it to Sicily when they landed in Mazara del Vallo on Sicily's west coast. In no other country of the Mediterranean basin has the prickly pear spread as in Sicily, where it represents a constant element of the landscape and a recurring element on the tables and in the literary and iconographic representations of the island until it becomes almost a real symbol. During the harvest period, it is traditional for peasants throughout Sicily to consume these fruits for breakfast. Costume derives from the ancient custom of the vineyard owner who gave these sweet fruits to his workers to stop them from overeating grapes during the harvest. The prickly pear, however, has much more distant origins than Sicily. It was born in South America, precisely in Mexico. "Tenacious monument of the deserts" was defined to describe the fruit's character, crowned with thorns, which survive the arid and dry desert temperatures. For a long time, the prickly pear has been a symbol of the Aztec tradition: the importance of this plant and this fruit for Mexicans is such that it even appears in the Mexican flag, under the eagle.The prickly pera is a plant that grows spontaneously, requires little attention, resists drought and aridity of the land.
The Sicilian prickly pear
In Sicily, prickly pear "shovels" grow spontaneously, providing high-quality fruit with an intense flavor. The island, after Mexico, is among the world's largest producers of the fruit. Here it is cultivated in distinct areas: in the central-eastern area that belongs to the town of San Cono, in the south-west of Etna in the territories of Belpasso, Militello, Paternò, Adrano, and Biancavilla, in the Belice (south-western area), in the municipalities of Menfi, Montevago, and Santa Margherita Belice.
The season of prickly pears
From August to Christmas, Sicily produces and export this exotic fruit with four different varieties: the yellow, called sulfarin, the red, known as "sanguine," the white, called "muscarella" and the typically orange, called "moscateddo".The plant's flowering begins in spring, while the fruits grow from the summer period. However, the most prized ones are the ones riping in late December. These fruits are called "bastarduna" or "scuzzulati": they are nothing more than the prickly pears born from the second flowering, which is obtained by eliminating the first smaller fruits, thus forcing the plant to bloom again. The "bastarduna" are less numerous but have a higher market value because they are larger and seedless. The not perfectly ripe prickly pears are instead called "burduni," , a term derived from the Latin Burdo, which means mule, to indicate a species that is not pure. The fruits are harvested several times: in irrigated cultivation, it is possible to obtain productions of 250-300 quintals per hectare. After harvesting, the fruits can be stored in the fridge at 6 degrees for 2 or 3 months. A specialized plant has a lifespan of about 30-35 years. This fruit in Sicily has also earned the geographical indication of PDO: the Etna PDO prickly pear is grown in numerous municipalities around Catania.
Prickly pear properties
There are many uses and properties of the prickly pear: many customs have the ancient Aztec people's roots. The Aztecs used the prickly pear leaves to breed an insect to obtain carminic acid. The red color was extracted from the dried insect's body, which is still required in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, textile, and food industries owadays. At one time, the leaves' juice was used as a lubricant to facilitate the movement of large stone boulders. Also, associated with honey and egg yolks, it seemed to be useful against burns caused by the intense Mexican sun, Among the properties of prickly pears, there are therapeutic ones: the fruit seems to be an excellent natural cure. The prickly pear has purifying properties and is an adjuvant in treating osteoporosis, thanks to the amount of iron, calcium, and phosphorus. It is also indicated in slimming diets since it contains few calories and plenty of fibers. Rehydrating and revitalizing it is also ideal for those who practice sports. In popular Sicilian medicine, the decoction of dried flowers of the prickly pear was recommended to combat renal colic. The use of prickly pear is particularly interesting in cosmetics to produce humectant creams, shampoos, soaps, and astringent lotions. It seems to stimulate hair growth.
prickly pear in the Sicilian cuisine
the prickly pears have a place in Sicilian cuisine. The most valuable food resource of the prickly pear plant is its fruits. In addition to being eaten, fresh prickly pears can be used to produce juices, liqueurs, jellies, jams, sweeteners, and more. The shovels, more properly the cladodes, can be eaten fresh, in brine, in vinegar, candied, in the form of jam, and also, as a vegetable cutlet. In general, touch a fruit with bare hands because of its small thorns can be really painful. Moreover, unlike what people think, the fruit can be consumed whole: thanks to the lower percentage of glucose compared to the pulp and a higher rate of cellulose and proteins, the famous peel of this fruit has a high nutritional value. In reality, it is not a recent discovery: in Sicily, it was common practice in the past to cook fresh peels and even dry them to consume them at a later time. The prickly pear has soon become an iconic pant of the Mediterranean basin's landscape, where it has found the best climatic conditions to take root and develop. Sicily, after Mexico, is the second-largest producer in the world. The plant grows spontaneously along the road. The blades characterize the Sicilian landscape providing colorful fruits, excellent to be enjoyed in many ways: fresh or preserved in brine, pickled, candied fruit, or in the form of jam.