Words from Sicily: Fichi d’India

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. There is an introduced plant that thrives and has been claimed by Sicily the fico d’india literally the Indian fig.

The prickly pear is a natural survivor of everything from drought to fire and has become the symbol of Sicily. They grow throughout the island, in every place from roadside verges to coastal strips and in the most isolated areas.

This challenging fruit grows high on the top of the plant, 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.

Mountains of prickly pears line the roadside spreading out into the uncultivated land, they too thrive in the lava soil and produce a much-loved fruit, in Sicily. The flat, irregular, spindly leaves of the fica d’india are oval-shaped, a little bit bigger than a table tennis racquet.

Literally, the Indian fig, 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 trying to get past, and they get stuck between the teeth, but most Sicilians simply swallow them and enjoy the refreshing melon-like flesh.

Growing between the crops of pistachios and prickly pear are the magnificent olive trees which love the broken-down lava mineral-rich soil. Olive trees have been planted on the island since ancient Greek times and are a staple part of the cuisine and landscape.

Known as the Barbary fig, this species is cultivated throughout the world and is thought to be a native of Mexico. The Berbers of Morocco also know it and the most well-known types were imported to Sicily from the Americas in the sixteenth century.

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. Yet, another ancient staple to be consumed in the winter.

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. But eating too many of them has a sneaky habit of making people painfully constipated.

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 swallowing them without a second thought.

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2021

I took this photo while accompanying my husband on one of his work trips. A great Aunt of mine who lives at Biancavilla about twenty minutes drive from the city of Catania had put my husband in contact with a friend of hers who was looking for a surveyor to plot out the boundaries of his property near the tiny Paese Eteneo (Etna Village) of Santa Maria di Licodia.

It was in early May but the unforgiving heat of the lava landscape so close to the Mt Etna volcano had already made the heat quite unforgiving.

The landscape around the property was quite harsh, dark burnt earth lava rocks, dotted with plantations of pistachio, olives and fichi d’india with the odd large gebbia (reservoir) of water.

As we were finishing off our GPS readings for the surveying job I noticed the most beautiful looking plant of Fichi, perfectly ripened in wonderful scarlet coloured fruit which was in contrast to the green of the cactus paddles of the plant.

And so this photo was born, from my deep admiration for this amazing specimen of Ficho d’india. In fact, the best of this fruit can be found only in and around Catania.

P.S: Be sure to comment and tell me what you think below.

Thanks for your support beautiful Sicily lovers, sending you love and light.