Mountains of prickly pears cactus plants line the roadside spreading out into the uncultivated land, they thrive in the lava soil and produce a much-loved fruit, in Sicily. The flat, irregular, leaves of the fica d’india are oval-shaped, a little bit bigger than a table tennis racquet. The fruit of this cactus ripens gradually around the edges of its leaves.
After negotiating the endless prickles of the plant and cutting around the spiky skin of the fruit, the sweet fleshy pulp filled with pips is eaten with particular relish by locals. The hard seeds are hard to get past, and they get stuck between the teeth, but most Sicilians swallow them and enjoy the refreshing melon-like flesh. Sicilian’s have learnt the valuable life lesson that the fichi illustrate. Which is if you put up with the more challenging parts of life, there is often a sweet fruit at the end of it all.
Driving through the countryside outside Catania, under the shadow of Mount Etna between the lava rocks and the dark soil dotted with olives and pistachio trees. In Sicily the fico d’india thrives; literally, the Indian Fig an exotic introduced plant has been claimed by locals as its own.
The prickly pear is a natural survivor of everything from drought to fire; it is symbolic of Sicily. It grows throughout the island, in every place from roadside verges to coastal strips and in the most isolated areas.
This fruit grows around the thick leaves of a cactus, which creates the necessity of negotiating thousands of prickles. The complexities are made even more difficult by the plant’s habit of finding a home in odd places like between boulders, on high walls, around electrical poles, on the edges of superhighways and through fences. Often found thriving in abandoned, viper-infested ruins or in rocky valleys and mountain ridges, which makes getting to this fruit something of an extreme sport.
The Prickly pears are usually reached while precariously balancing upon a stepladder while wearing sturdy industrial gloves and specially constructed prickly pear gathering devices. The most effective of these harvesting tools are long steel poles with cups fastened to the end. They grab the whole fruit and with a quick flick of the wrist breaks it off the plant, leaving it inside the container. Devotees of this delicacy have different models of the fica d’india gatherer according to the dimensions of the fruit.
The oval-shaped prickly pear has a hard skin filled with little spikes like needle tips. It is difficult to imagine how on earth someone discovered the extraordinary nature of this intimidating delicacy. Still, many people take advantage of this no doubt painfully acquired discovery, to enjoy the treat. Some make a kind of marmalade from this exotic fruit, which is often crushed, deseeded and strained then left to dry out in the sun to become a chewy type of candy. This ancient staple was usually stockpiled for consumption during the once harsh Sicilian winter.
Known also as the Barbary fig (Opuntia ficus-indica) the Fico d’india is a species of cactus cultivated throughout the world in arid and semiarid areas. It is thought to be a native of Mexico. The Berbers of Morocco also know it, and the most well-known types were imported from the Americas in the sixteenth century.
Sicilian’s love this exotic fruit served fresh after being cooled in the refrigerator.
As for their taste, tiny hard pips dominate the first bite, but the soft flesh around them is quite refreshing and sweet like a melon. There are many varieties the red ones are the most vibrant, but there are also orange, green and so-called white ones which are a golden colour. Generally, the fruit is very good for you and contains much fibre. Still, eating way too many of them has a sneaky habit of making people painfully constipated.
They are an acquired taste, their flavour is quite plain. The Fichi’s appeal is in the way they refresh the mouth. The more succulent varieties have soaked in the water of the first Autumn rains which give them a juicy quality. The fichi d’india clear the palate after a meal, rinsing the mouth with a subtly sweet juice which has a satisfying quality.
As for their taste. It’s hard to descibe, they don’t have a strong taste but it’s like biting into a densely packed watermelon filled with tiny seeds. After they are chilled and fully ripe they have a slight sweet after taste like a hint of strawberry or peach. The different varieties vary in taste so it’s better if you taste for yourself.
The variety cultivated later in the season in Catania province is probably the most generous in flavour and size. The fruit of the Bastardoni, are pruned back, culling inferior fruit so that the plant is encouraged to grow a second batch of fruit to be harvested in late September. This second harvest takes advantage of the first rains and always produces larger fruit than the first.
The best examples of Fichi d’India are cultivated along the slopes of Etna above 700 meters above sea level; their fruit is robust. It can be stored for months, up until February. There are four types of colours which include yellow (Giallo or sulfarina), orange, white (Bianca or muscaredda) and red (Rossa or sanguigna)
The love of this versatile fruit has seen the fico d’india turned into ice cream, sorbet and even liquor. The taste is pleasant, but it would be ideal if someone could take out the pips. Yet Sicilian’s don’t seem to be bothered by swallowing them without a second thought. They also happily negotiate the tiny spindly needle-like prickles, which are as fine as silk and are the most painful spine to have stuck in your fingers or hands. They deftly negotiate the prickly qualities of the fiche d’india to avoid getting prickles in the roof of their mouths. And in turn, have created a unique dedication to one of the most exotic fruits in existence.