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BIG BASTARDS Here!
When you hear that shouted, be prepared to have your heavy rubber gloves with you, not to slap the vendor, but to pick out your autumn prickly pears unless you are buying the whole crate. In the market in Catania you will hear the hawking of Bastardoni – these are the most prized because they are bigger, juicer and seem to have less seeds.
According to my Sicilian friend, it all started with a feud between neighbors, to be spiteful one cut all the flowers off his neighbors cactus thinking it would kill the fruit, but in fact the fruit came later in the season – bigger, plumper and juicer than ever. Thus the practice of scozzolatura, results in a second flowering of the cactus plant. The fruits then ripen in the fall during the rainier season, which produces juicy plump fruits.
Sicily is the second largest global producer after Mexico, where these came from originally. Thanks to Christopher Columbus’ 1492 journey trying to find India, he brought these fruits back to the Mediterranean. Called Fichi d’India – they aren’t from India and they definitely aren’t figs. But Sicily has multiple varieties a smaller one that ripen in August are called agostani, the Sulfarina is the most widespread variety with orange-yellow flesh; Muscaredda a sweeter and more crunchy variety, having white pulp, and the Sanguigna, which is characterized by its red-purple pulp, incredibly juicy and sweet. What they all have in common is glochids! Those hairy spines that always find their way into skin, ouch! That is why you need those heavy rubber gloves. But the interesting thing about plants with glochids is that they form these to help conserve moisture. They are actually modified leaves, unlike thorns and these prevent the plant from losing too much moisture in the form of evaporation and keeping them juicy.
They are very refreshing especially in the hot climate, used as a typical Sicilian breakfast fruit, juices, jams and jellies, ice creams and candied. They are very high in fiber, vitamins, particularly Vitamin C, and mineral salts. This fruit is used for diuretic, astringent, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and gastro-protective properties. In short, it is a true cure-all. Not to mention its large, fleshy and thorny leaf, called pala, whose juice and pulp are used in cosmetics and for their incredible healing and moisturizing qualities?
In driving around the eastern side of Sicily, you see miles of cactus plantations, roughly 10,000 acres in the province of Catania! I could not believe the rows after rows. Can’t imagine how they pick them safely. I use kitchen tongs, but that would be impossible on these plantations. Even just to peel them is a delicate operation, but it is common to ask your waiter to peel them for you. In Sicily, okay but here in the states, a waiter would only roll his eyes and walk away.
I have now planted my own… still waiting for the flowers so that I can scozzolatura!
Just made a batch of jelly – recipe below. But next harvest is going to be made into Rosolio de Ficodindia dell ‘Etna liqueur…. My friend gave me his Mother’s recipe.
Let the Amalfi has their Lemoncello !
Fico d’India Jelly
28 ripe prickly pears peeled
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
5 cups sugar
2 T. vanilla
Cut fruit into chunks and puree in a blender, strain through a sieve or cheese cloth to remove all the seeds. Heat juice, lemon juice, vanilla and pectin. Bring to a boil, stir in sugar and cook five minutes, constantly so it doesn’t foam over the edge. Fill sterilize jars.