The prickly pear reigns supreme in Malta’s landscape. At this time of year, its fruits ripen and are harvested by hardy folk as a food for free. In the more rural villages, you’ll find veggie vans and shops selling the pears, spines removed thank goodness. Often, my village neighbours arrive at my door with a plastic bowl full of the fruit, peeled to reveal their jewel-like, ruby-coloured succulent flesh. I accept graciously, though I have never really got to grips with munching or spitting out the abundant seeds. Apparently, there are seedless varieties around, just not in the wild of course!
Although not a native of the Malta, or the Mediterreanean (its origins lie in South America), the Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian fig) certainly thrives here. Were it not for farmers lopping off bits from time to time it might well take over. Farmers of old would use it as a boundary between fields; it’s definitely a good deterrent to intruders or straying livestock and is cheaper for villa owners to install than a security system!
The fruit can be red, deep wine-red, green or yellow-orange and is perfectly edible (fussiness over seeds aside). It is sweet and moist with a flavour similar to sub-tropical fruits like watermelon, honeydew melon, strawberries and figs. And is a fraction of the price of these, or free if you pick your own.
I would leave picking, and removing the peel to the experts though; rural folk with hands like leather, who wield a knife skilfully and are impervious to the nasty spines. On my first trip to Malta 20 years ago, I was offered a half-heartedly peeled prickly pear and ended up, very uncomfortably, with very fine, hair-like spines swelling my lips for days.
Prickly Pear culinary delights
Malta doesn’t really make much use of its abundant prickly pear supply. Our Sicilian neighbours treat it far more adventurously making candies, granita (slushy ices), ice creams, and jellies from it, as well as serving it up as dessert in restaurants ranging from casual trattorie to those listed in the esteemed Michelin Guides.
The prickly pear is however on the increase on menus in Malta as we are beginning to see chefs value this humble, poor-man’s food. Its presence on the menu can add local flair to what is often a bland list of internationally available desserts. The prickly pear is also versatile, and equally at home in savoury dishes.
Most people I know simply eat it unadulterated; or they juice it. It can make a refreshing drink, and it certainly makes an interesting, pink-coloured Maltese liqueur under the Zeppi brand, called Bajtra. You’ll find it in most grocers and at the airport, alongside Maltese honey and biscuits, being sold as a souvenir.
It has an impressive list of healthly properties: it is rich in anti-oxidents and contains a good dose of vitamin C. Some say its juice can help cure a hangover. The ficus indica is being looked at closely for its health benefits: A Maltese company, along with a French partner, has been researching prickly pear properties since 1996. It has has found its extracts can help alleviate symptoms of extreme fatigue experienced after performing strenuous exercise – we’re talking about scuba divers and racing drivers here.
So, it seems that the humble prickly pear, much maligned and often viewed as an invasive weed, has a lot to offer Malta after all.