Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beware Indian Figs

One of the most painful foods to eat (painful, that is if you try to handle them with your fingers) are fichi d’India, literally ‘figs of India’ or, as I grew up knowing them, prickly pear.

Anyone who has travelled through Sicily and southern Italy as we did a few years ago (see my book Just a Little Italian) will remember the huge cactus plants growing on roadsides and dotted incongruously in fields.

Those pale-green pads the size of tennis racquets are spiked with vicious thorns, and the plump red or yellow egg-shaped fruit that grow from them are just as dangerous. Their skin is a booby trap full of the finest, almost invisible hairlike spines which attach themselves to clothes and skin without invitation.

So why trouble with such a fruit­ – one that is intent on becoming your enemy, it seems?

Southern Italians have long prized this fruit for a number of reasons. It grows readily in hot arid soil, and it is generous with the fruit it provides. It is free food for foragers, a plus in the past when these regions were sorely poverty-stricken.

After getting our fingers well and truly prickled by the spines in Sicily, we were later told that we should have held them in newspaper while we scooped out the flesh. Some people rub the fruit in sand or swiftly pass them over a flame to remove the spines.

Elsewhere in Sicily, at Modica on the southern coast, in one amazing shop we discovered chilli chocolate and  a liqueur made from fico d’India. The owner warned us that if we ate the chocolate and then drank the  liqueur, ‘then you need someone standing by!’ because of its aphrodisiac results. I didn’t test that tale.

This cactus is only native in the western hemisphere, not on the Indian subcontinent. So why the name ‘figs of India’?

Prickly pear cacti are indigenous to North America, occurring from the arid north-west, through the Rockies, and down to Mexico where they are abundant. They were named for the Native American ‘indians’ and when the fruit was introduced into Europe, the name went with it, at least to Italy. I didn't know that.

Fans of fichi d’India say the flavour is like a cross between strawberry and watermelon, but personally, I would rather eat either of those fruits individually for the rest of my life, (and especially real figs) rather than risk another cactus attack simply to enjoy the flavours in unison!

Do you like this fruit? What is your tip for eating it comfortably? Do you use it in cookery – and if so, how?