By Rick Gush, Urban Farm contributor
Friday, September 23, 2011
Photo by Rick Gush
It is my goal to harvest and eat as much free fruit as possible, including cactus fruit.
My campaign to harvest and eat as much free fruit as possible has now moved into cactus-fruit season. The bad news is that this fruit requires a bit more care in handling and preparation. The good news is that almost nobody else wants to harvest the fruit, so I have them all to myself.
The cactus fruit that I am harvesting now is the Opuntia ficus-indica, which grows on very large flat-pad cacti that are fairly common in the parts of the world that have mild winters. Also called prickly pears or Indian figs, these plants are native to Mexico.
Luckily for me, the O. ficus-indica that produces the biggest and most succulent fruit is also a variety of cactus with few spines. Our garden has a smaller, spinier O. ficus-indica variety, which produces some nice, dark-red fruit, but they are much smaller than the big Indian fig fruit.
Harvesting cactus fruit is often made difficult by the fact that it is hard to reach the top pads where the fruit grows. In a big stand of cacti, the fruit can be 10 feet up in the air with an imposing set of spiny trunk pads blocking access. Here in Liguria, Italy, I can usually find cacti that are growing out of the side of a wall in such a manner that I can reach up from below and harvest their fruit.
When my wife and I visit the island of Elba, Italy, in October, I always take what I need to make a pair of harvesting poles. I attach a small cloth bag held open with a bent coat hanger on one long, Arundo-cane pole. The other long pole has a 9-inch-wide rake head attached to it. The poles give me a reach of 10 or 12 feet, allowing me to maneuver the bag under the fruit and pull it off the pad so that it falls right into the bag. It is sort of like a carnival game, and it’s not unusual to fail, watching a wonderful, ripe fruit fall irretrievably into the middle of the cacti patch. In any event, however, I always manage to collect an abundant harvest.
Once back in the kitchen, I put leather gloves on to prepare the fruit for eating. The exterior of the fruits are dotted with clumps of tiny, almost invisible spines, which must be removed prior to eating. A sharp knife will easily remove the outer skin, leaving a bright-orange-and-red, pulpy mass full of crunchy seeds. As usual, I am the goat who eats the entire fruit — seeds and all — while my wife takes a bit more time to separate the seeds from the pulp.
We eat the cactus fruit by themselves, mixed with breakfast cereals or other fruits, or mixed into green salads. A few years ago, we ate some cactus fruit baked into little pastry pies.
However one eats them, the fruit is very tasty, and I’m always sort of laughing at the fact that almost nobody else bothers to eat them.
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