Prickly pears


Sicilian food and wine >>

When Columbus unwittingly discovered the Americas in 1492, Sicily was a Spanish dominion. As such, the island was amongst the first places in Europe to experience the prodigious bounty that began to flow eastwards across the Atlantic.

This influx of riches from the Americas included a weird and wonderful variety of foodstuffs that would quickly become staples in European pantries. Potatoes, tomatoes, maize, peppers and cacao have arguably had the greatest influence on the cuisines of the Old Continent, but many Sicilians would place a fruit at the top of that list: enter the fico d’India, or prickly pear.

Anyone who has visited Sicily cannot have failed to notice the island’s ubiquitous prickly pears. They flank roads, partition fields, thrive on lava flows, cling to cliffsides, grace private gardens and terraces, and provide inspiration for potters and artists.

After Mexico, Sicily is the largest producer of fichi d’India in the world.

In the centre and east of Sicily, prickly pears are cultivated in vast plantations that cover some 4,000 hectares. After Mexico, Sicily is the largest producer of fichi d’India in the world and the island accounts for around 90% of all prickly pears grown in the European Union.

In the summer months, the first flowers and fruit of the fichi d'India plants are eliminated in a process called scozzolatura. This pruning brings on a second crop of larger, juicier prickly pears, which the Sicilians, in an expression of rustic hyperbole, denominate bastardoni, or Big Bastards.

By mid-September, bastardoni begin to appear in the markets and on improvised street corner stalls manned by vendors who expertly peel off the thorny skin so that their customers may indulge immediately. Restaurants offer a similar service, but go one step further by providing their clientele with plates and a knife and fork.

Unpeeled, Sicilian prickly pears come in three main colours – apple white, ruby red and sunset orange. The flesh is juicy and sweet and contains many seeds, which the locals devour without a thought. Excess fichi d’India are transformed into preserves, juices, condiments, liquors and even skincare products – the essential oils of the fruit’s seeds are highly prized.

Prickly pears are not only good for the skin however. In terms of nutrition, they have many advantages, including a low calorie count and a high concentration of vitamin C, magnesium and fibre. Research also shows that prickly pears have strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, two aspects that might explain why some Sicilians consider it the perfect hangover cure.

So, next time you’re in Sicily and someone offers you a Big Bastard, why not give it a try?

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