Guide to eating prickly pears
Right now, every fence along every south Italian road is ripe with spiny cactus fruits. Here’s is my guide to harvesting, eating and preserving prickly pears.
This blog post was updated with new sections and photos in October 2021
The fichi d’India are everywhere, heavy with fruit in varying colours and degrees of ripeness – and even the supermarket sells prickly pear in an unspined, ready-to-peel version.
Harvesting prickly pears
Fortunately, hungry neighbours had nicked most of the cactus fruits from my piece of land, and I wish they’d taken them all. That way I wouldn’t have had to fight the almost invisible hairy spines. It was no problem to get the fruit off the cactus without getting skewered, as long as you used a special fico d’India plucking contraption combined with thick work gloves and buckets of water.
Once in the bucket, you massage the fruit with a hand broom, change the water and repeat the process several times over, until it seem safe to drain the prickly pears, place them on an old newspaper and peel them. The spikes have a tendency to cling to the table, plates, knifes and dishcloths for days and ended up in fingers, when least expected, so make sure to pour the water on the ground and place them on a disposable surface.
Eating prickly pears
When peeled the fichi d’india are ready to eat, but again a word of warning seems approprite. The fruits contain quite a lot of stony seeds and after two fruits you feel as if you could dance a pizzica and beat the rhythm without using a tambourine. Those seeds really make me rattle.
So after an attempt at making prickly pear juice and a successful prickly pear jam, I decided the fruits looked much prettier on the plant than on my table.
Still, prickly pears are highly nutritious and good for the digestion. They are also known to have antibacterial and antioxidant properties, which explains why the gang of farmhands specialized in pruning olive trees cut a leaf off a prickly pear cactus and rub the juice on the wound, if a scratch starts to bleed.
Preserving prickly pears
You can also preserve prickly pears by harvesting a cactus leaf carrying several fruits and hanging it upside down in a dry, dark, airy place, like a potting shed or a Puglian trullo. This will preserve the fruits for up to a year, and the seeds seem to diminish over time, which increases the pleasure of eating prickly pears as a natural vitamin boost during winter.
I think if I was a real prickly pear fan – and I confess I’ve never tried them – I would buy them already peeled.
I am not a fan – they just taste watered down to me, and definitely aren’t worth all the work. It’s really dangerous. My father in law (88 years old) can peel them bare-handed!
I love them! And for peeling, all you need is a sharp knife and a couple of sheets of newspaper
I really admire that farther in law. And thanks for the tip with the newspaper – it might prevent the spikes from turning up unexpectedly.
I love prickly pears so much so that I don’t mind the occasional “thorn” in my fingers. A perfect desert fruit, they are so juicy and sweet. I mean desert like in a very hot place not as an after meal sweet, mind.
Wow – you sound like one of the natives. I’ll try to copy that:)
I had never even considered whether they are edible! I would definitely have a taste as long as someone else had done the dangerous work of picking and preparation!
It came as a surprise to me as well until I realized that it makes perfect sense. The farmers in this part of Italy simply do not grow anything that cannot be eaten or used for other practical purposes.
I only tried prickly pear jam when I went to Malta. It was great culture shock to discover one can eat..a cactus :-) Well, it’s not a cactus, of course, but it looks like its close cousin.
Know what you mean – it’s like eating sea urchins or weeds for the first time.
They were one of my first experiences in Ortigia’s market.
I really enjoyed them but I was glad someone prepared them for me.
I find the seeds hard to digest, but you can’t say no to a fruit with such magical colours.
My Father made the most wonderful Prickly Pear wine and I love to eat the fruit so very delicious and down in the desert where I have acreage it grows everywhere and it is the most beautiful magenta color it makes a wonderful natural dye for clothes and makes your lips a lovely shade :)
How interesting. I didn’t know you could make wine for prickly pears – or lip gloss and clothes dye for that matter. Thanks for enlightening me:)
I grew up eating prickly pears. We make everything from jam & syrup to frozen cubes to put in water. My kids love the syrup over waffles or icecream while the adults enjoy prickly pear margaritas and daquiris. We use bbq tongs to remove the fruit…then use the nopales (cactus pads) to make cactus fries or add to green chili. The whole plant is edible. My Nona came from Pogardhoni, Calabria Italia
What a lot of very useful ideas and tips to eating prickly pears. Can’t wait to give the frozen cubes a try. Thank you so much for sharing.