prickly pear

 

Opuntia ficus-indica

Italy

Sicily

Sagra della Mostarda e del Fico d’India

Militello in Val di Catania, eastern Sicily

The 2021 celebration has been cancelled due to Covid 

 

For the last 30 years, each October, the ancient medieval town of Militello has celebrated the prickly pear. 

'If the “fico d’India” or prickly pear is ubiquitous in Sicily, it is particularly so in the area around Militello in Val di Catania: as you approach the town, which lies in the Catania Valley near the pottery town of Caltagirone, bushes of fichi d’India surround you and the ripe fruits cover the winding road and fields as you pass.'

[italymagazine.com/featured-story/patti-chiari-trip-prickly-pear-festival]

Taking place over the second and third weekends of October, the Sagra della Mostarda e del Fico d'India which culminates in wonderfully colourful parade of horse-drawn Sicilian carts, offers a fascinating array of foods relating to the prickly pear as well as displays and cultural and musical events.

In October 2019 I had the good fortune to be able to visit the Sagra in Militello. 

 

You can read about it and more about the history and uses of prickly pears on my website, herewww.anna-lewington.co.uk.

Also in the province of Catania, prickly pear festivals are held in the villages of San Cono and Belpasso.  In Palermo province, in Roccapalumba, and in Agrigento province, in Santa Margherita del Belice 

 

Sicily's Prickly Pears

Opuntia ficus-indica, the cactus that produces prickly pears - its spine-covered fruit - on the edges of its distinctive paddle-shaped ‘pads’ (technically cladodes - not leaves but flattened stem segments that arise from larger trunk-forming stems) can be seen across large parts of the Sicilian landscape, thriving on the island’s volcanic and other soils. And they seem very much at home on urban roof tops, sprouting up between the tiles wherever a bird has deposited a seed.

 

As its Latin name suggests however, the prickly pear, also widely referred to as the cactus pear, isn’t native to Sicily. Long valued by the native peoples of Mexico where the plant and its fruit are still of significant cultural and economic importance, this ‘fig of the Indies’, so-called, had been introduced to Europe by the 1550s (1) from Mesomerica following the discovery of this bountiful ‘new world’ by the Spanish. It is thought probable that Opuntia cacti were brought to Europe ‘after the first or second visit of Columbus to the Caribbean’(2) but the first definite record is from Mexico in 1515.(3)

 

The cactus was initially of particular interest to Europeans as a host plant for the dye-producing cochineal insect, but also as a botanical curiosity. Numerous works of art of the period - including Breughel the Elder’s ‘Land of Plenty’ (1567) - featured an Opuntia.(4)

 

Quickly becoming naturalized in parts of the Mediterranean, it was being widely grown in Sicily - one of the territories controlled by the Spanish at the time of the plant’s introduction - by the 1700s (5) (one source states by the 17thC (6)) both in coastal areas and on the steep, rocky hillsides of the island’s interior. Here, it played an important role in converting these marginal lands, with their poor soils and irregular water supply, into productive ones, providing fresh food for both people and animals. With their high water content (85-90%), the cladodes became highly valued as forage for livestock. Cultivated irregularly in a ‘mixed brush ecosystem’, (7) and planted along the contour lines of steep slopes to help stop soil erosion, by the mid 19thC the prickly pear had become a staple in the diet of rural populations.  The cacti were also inter-planted with drought-tolerant fruit trees (such as almond Amygdalus communis), pistachio (Pistacia vera) and carob (Ceratonia siliqua), ranking third in importance as a fruit crop after grapes and olives. 

 

In coastal areas meanwhile, near the major towns of Palermo and Catania, plantations were established to supply demand from the better-off and for export to mainland Italy.  When these plantations were largely displaced in the second half of the 19thC for the cultivation of citrus, new plantations were established in hilly areas near the towns, and then further areas created after WW2.(8)

 

Whilst one may wonder about the displacement of the native flora that this must have brought about (the cactus has become an invasive nuisance, forming extensive colonies, in some parts of the world (9)) its resilience has certainly been turned to advantage in Sicily.  

 

Having long played such an important part in both subsistence agriculture and in intensive fruit production, it is now so much associated with the island that it’s been adopted as an emblem of this impressive land, appearing on everything from clothing and jewelry to designer furniture.

 

Prickly pears - ficurinia in Sicilian dialect - are grown commercially today in various locations on the island covering an area of some 4,000 hectares in all. (10) The most significant in terms of production (accounting for some 60% of the area planted) (11) is the region of San Cono in the province of Catania, its fruit having been given a Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) (Protected Designation of Origin) in 2003, as a mark of ‘excellence and high nutritional value’. (12)  Others include Santa Margherita di Belice in the province of Agrigento; Roccapalumba, about 60km southeast of Palermo, and a number of municipalities, including Belpasso, on the slopes of Mount Etna, which together have also been given the distinction of the DOP ‘Ficodindia dell’Etna’. In 2017, the Distretto Produttivo del Ficodindia di Sicilia (Productive District of the Sicilian Prickly Pear) was formally recognized. Promoted by a team of industry professionals, its aim was to link these major production centres in order to maximize the production and consumption of the Sicilian prickly pear which today supplies over 90% of the European market. (13)

 

Notes:

  1. FAO, Crop Ecology, Cultivation and Uses of Cactus Pear: IX International

     Congress on Cactus Pear and Cochineal, CAM crops for a hotter and drier

     world, Coquimbo, Chile, 26-30 March 2017, p3 

     http://www.fao.org/3/i7012e/i7012e.pdf

  2. Ibid., p14

  3. Ibid., p10

  4. Ibid., p4

  5. Ibid., p10

  6. Barbera, G., Carimi, F., & Inglese, P.  Past and Present role of the Indian-fig

     Prickly-Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica (l.) Miller, Cactaceae) in the Agriculture of

     Sicily.  Economic Botany 46, 10-20 (1992). p12

  7. Ibid., p12

  8. Ibid., p14

  9. CABI Invasive Species Compendium: Opuntia ficus-indica (prickly pear),

      last modified 2019.

      https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/37714

10. Ficodindia di Sicilia: cultivation techniques for the qualitative improvement of

      fruits

      https://www.siciliaagricoltura.it/2016/11/19/ficodindia-di-sicilia-tecniche-              colturali-finalizzate-al-miglioramento-qualitativo-dei-frutti/

11.  Ibid.

12.  Ibid.

13. The Thinking Traveller: Traditional Sicilian Food

      https://www.thethinkingtraveller.com/italy/sicily/guide-to-sicily/food-and-wine-

      in-sicily/traditional-sicilian-food

2019-10-10_11-27 57.jpg

Prickly pears, Militello, Sicily

2019-10-12_17-20 05.jpg

Colour, crunch and vitamins

In Sicily, prickly pear varieties belonging to three main groups are distinguished by the colour of the pulp of their mature fruit.  Most widespread, accounting for up to 90% of production (1) is the gialla (yellow) also known as the sulfarina, surfina or nostrale, which has an orange-yellow inner flesh and a slightly powdery consistency. The rossa (red) or sanguigna (accounting for up to about 10% of production) however, which has reddish-purple flesh, is the most sweet and juicy, while the bianca (white), muscaredda or sciannarina with white/pale green flesh has a crunchier texture and is only produced in small quantities.

 

After harvest, carefully done as the fruit are easily bruised, the fruit are taken to be washed, de-spined and weighed, before being sorted according to size and weight and colour, though sometimes fruits of different cultivars are mixed to achieve an attractive visual effect.

 

The pears are commonly eaten fresh and often served at breakfast or after the evening meal.  They are prepared by cutting off their top and bottom ends then slicing down one side through the thick, fleshy skin to detach it from the grenade-shaped flesh inside. The taste and texture slightly resemble those of a dense water melon, but the fruit is full of small, hard, woody seeds (similar in size to grape seeds), which are easily crunched and swallowed.  Passing whole through the gut of the many birds attracted to the succulent flesh that surrounds them, it’s easy to see how these cacti have been able to proliferate across parts of the Sicilian landscape and flourish on crevices on walls and between roof tiles.

 

With a high fibre content and with one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C of any fruit (2), as well as mineral salts (especially calcium and potassium (3), as well as phosphorus and magnesium (4)),  the fruit is reported to have ‘diuretic, astringent, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and gastroprotective’ properties and to be regarded by some as a ‘cure-all’. (5) This fruit, it is also claimed has 'a cleansing effect on the human body: it facilitates diuresis and the expulsion of kidney stones and prevents renal and hepatic fatigue in subjects who have a metabolic overload.’(6)

 

The whole fruit is also cooked and eaten in Sicily in various other ways: turned into conserves or jam, for example, used in biscuits and cakes, while the prepared skins may be sliced and used in savoury dishes such as relishes, and along with the fruit pulp, for ravioli fillings and risotto. The inner flesh of fruit skins may also be scooped out and dipped in batter for frying in the form of pancakes. (7)

 

Juice, obtained by squeezing the flesh through a cloth, is also extracted and boiled until it forms a dense syrup ‘monaccioli(8) useful for flavouring desserts or diluting with sparkling water as a drink, or further transformed into distinctive products such as mastrazzola.

Notes:

  1. http://www.fichidindiaclizia.com/

  2. CABI Invasive Species Compendium: Opuntia ficus-indica (prickly

      pear),last modified 2019

  3. FAO, Crop Ecology, Cultivation and Uses of Cactus Pear: IX

      International Congress on Cactus Pear and Cochineal, CAM crops

      for a hotter and drier world, Coquimbo, Chile, 26-30 March 2017,

      p137. http://www.fao.org/3/i7012e/i7012e.pdf

  4. www.visitsicily.info/en/sicilian-prickly-pears/

  5. Ibid.

  6. www.fichidindiaclizia.com/

  7. https://www.greenme.it/mangiare/vegetariano-a-vegano/fichi-india-

      ricette/

  8. www.fichidindiaclizia.com/

     

 

2019-10-12_17-31 42.jpg

Mastrazzola - caramelized sweets made from mostarda, based on prickly pear syrup