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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Prickly Pear Honey (Miele di Fiori di Fico d'India), Zafferena Etnae, Italy (Sicily)

On a recent family vacation to Sicily I noticed, near Syracuse, what looked like managed fields of cacti- not random cacti here and there, but cacti organized into rows, like apple trees in an orchard. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me but then came to discover that cacti are farmed in cacti plantations in Eastern Sicily, mostly for their prickly pears.

Prickly Pear fruit
As far as I can tell, there are two sorts or prickly pears in Sicily (also called ‘tuna’ which is hard for me to wrap my mind around), the ‘bastardoni’ (big bastards), a fat succulent variety, and ‘agostani,” a smaller variety. Opuntia is the genus (named for the Ancient Greek city of Opus) of the cactus family Cactaceae, and the most common culinary species is the ficus-indica (Opuntia, ficus-indica), the type of cacti cultivated in Sicily. DNA analysis suggests that Opuntia ficus-indica originated from a species native to Mexico and the plant spread to parts of the Americas in pre-Columbian times. Post-Columbus it spread to other parts of the world (especially the Mediterranean) in part due to ships carrying prickly pears to prevent scurvy (they are rich in vitamin C). 

Apart from being called tuna, the prickly pear fruit is also generically known as ‘fichi d’India,’ ‘ficurinnia,’or 'Indian figs' in Sicily, although they are not figs or native to India (go figure). In fact the calling of the fruit ‘figs’ seems quite common: in Sardinia they are called figumorisca (Moorish figs), in Crete they are called pavlosyka (Paul’s figs), in Albania they are called fiq deti (sea figs), in Cyprus they are called papoutsosyka (cactus figs), and on Malta they are called bajtartax-xewk (spiny figs). 

The O. ficus-indica plant can produces three different colors of flowers: white, yellow and red. Flowers appear in late spring and the fruit ripens in late summer through the fall. To get bastardoni, you apparently cut off the spring cactus flowers. This results in a second flowering in the fall during the rainier season and this, in turn, produces fatter, juicier prickly pears. Legend has it that this practice started as a result of a feud over the property line between neighbors (cacti are sometimes used to mark boundaries). One neighbor cut off the flowers of the other neighbor’s cacti to destroy his prickly pear crop, only to find that come fall the resulting prickly pears were larger and juicier than ever. 

Opuntia ficus-indica in Sicily
If you want to sample a bastardoni harvest is in the fall and they are usually available through December in outdoor markets. It is a little tricky to eat a prickly pear without hurting yourself. You need to carefully peel it (it is recommended that gloves be worn) to get rid of the prickly spines, or glochids, that are studded throughout. If you don’t do this properly glochids will lodge in your lips, tongue and throat, “causing discomfort.”  Some have dealt with this by rolling the fruit in sand or rotating it in flame to get rid of them. According to one website, the best course of action is to order prickly pears in a restaurant and have the restaurant staff take care of this difficult bit. Good advice as far as I can see.

We visited Syracuse in June when prickly pears are not in season, so we, unfortunately, missed out on this experience. However, I’ve come to learn that the fruit can range in color from white to deep crimson, and it has a mild, citrusy flavor. One website described it "like a pear with an identity crisis." The pulp is also rife with seeds, which you eat along with the fruit. One website advised that eating prickly pears should be avoided by "those who have problems digesting seeds.” Isn’t the whole point of seeds that they are difficult to digest? Who is left to eat prickly pears? Another cautioned that prickly pears can cause constipation if the seeds are eaten, but acts as a laxative if they are removed. I’m starting to feel like we dodged a bullet.

Apart from enjoying prickly pears au nature, you can also enjoy prickly pear liqueur (the Sicilian village of Gagliano Castelferrato produces ficodi, in Malta they produce bajtra, and on Saint Helena island they produce Tungi Spirit) or a sweet prickly pear granite (which purportedly tastes “like watermelon juice imbued with banana and oranges”). The leaves (called cladodes) are also edible, and when stripped of their spines can be cooked like a vegetable. Other prickly pear products include candy and jelly. Cactus leaf sap has also been used in hair conditioners, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Of interest, the insect Dactylopius coccus, from which cochineal is derived (a red dye) lives on Opuntia cacti, although mostly Mexican varieties.

The prickly pear honey that I have is produced by Emanuele Scammacca Barone del Murgo, an operation based in Zafferana Etna, a small town on the southeastern slope of Mount Etna.  They are, however,  known primarily for their wine and olive oil, and have been in this business since 1850. Apparently the volcanic soil around Mount Etna imbues the wine with  "aromatic complexity and personality." 

The head of the operation is Baron Emanuele Scammacca Del Murgo. His sons, Michele, Pietro and Matteo are also part of the family business. According to The Heirs of Europe blogspot, the Barony of Murgo was created in 1409 and first conferred on Blasco Scammacca, a medic of King Martin I of Sicily. 

Honey production seems to be a side business for the Baron. The only information on the Murgo website is that they produce three types of honey (lemon, orange and prickly pear), that the honey is organic, and that the honey is tasty and unique. 

Miele di flori di Fico dIndia
The jar that I have states that the honey was collected in January of 2013. It has started to crystallize with large crystals making the honey chunky. It is a soft yellow, cloudy, opaque color. I think prior to crystallization it was probably a mellow yellow color. It is a sweet, uncomplicated honey with no particular floral or herbal undertones. It has a nice clean, honey taste from beginning to end. What makes it unusual is the large crystal texture. This honey would be perfect on thick, plain yoghurt or hot buttered toast.  In tea it would be wonderful, but you'd lose the chunky texture that gives it character.

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