Autumn is the season for prickly pears…and Sicilians are mad for prickly pears. From September to Christmas grocers display colourful boxes of those fruits and everybody buys them for family consumption or even to bring them to a party as a highly appreciated present…especially if peal and pricks have already been removed !! And every year Sicilians debate about the colour and the taste. Experts affirm that the greenish-whitish one, in spite of its lack of brilliant colours, is definitely the best, while children and more aesthetic-oriented people prefer the strong purple coloured ones. The third choice is the orange one, often the best, but because it is more common it is also considered as the boring one.
For their shape, their beautiful colours, their diffusion all over the island and their use in Sicilian cuisine and patisserie, prickly pears are a symbol of our island and are often used to enrich gardens, tables or reproduced to decorate pottery and ceramics.
If Sicilians are mad for them not all Italians and foreign visitors share with us this passion. Eating a prickly pear requires a certain expertise, the many seeds can be neither chewed nor avoided, they have to be swollen together with the flesh and this can result sometimes unpleasant to inexpert mouths.
For some villages the farming of prickly pears is a consistent part of local economy: this is the case of San Cono, between Enna and Catania, where the fico d’India is an European PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
Prickly pears are the fruits of the Opuntia ficus indica, a cactus that originally came from Central America taken to Europe from West Indies by Spanish and Portuguese boats when the Americas became part of the Spanish monarchy. For the first time they were described in 1535 by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes in his Historia de las Indias. Completely unknown in Europe until that moment it was considered an exotic and curious fruit and therefore each language gave to this plant an inventive name: it was called Figue de Barbarie in French, Kaktusfeigen in German, tuna, higo chumbo, figo da India in Spanish and Portuguese, fico d’India in Italian and finally ficulina in Sicilian.
If you love prickly pears or you want to try them for the first time you do not need to fly to Mexico. Just come to Sicily between September and October and take part in the “colours and tastes disputes”…
Gianluca D’Alia, Paesaggio Sicilia Tours