#21 Fichi d’india
the regret of moving to Sicily
Driving through the countryside outside Catania, under the shadow of Mount Etna between the lava rocks and the dark soil dotted with olives and pistachio trees. There is an introduced plant which thrives and has been claimed by Sicily, the fico d'india, literally the Indian fig.
The prickly pear is a natural survivor of everything from drought to fire and has become the symbol of Sicily. They grow throughout the island, from roadside verges to coastal strips and the most isolated areas.
This challenging fruit grows high on the top of the plant, which creates the necessity of negotiating thousands of prickles. The complexities are made even more difficult by the plant's habit of finding a home in odd places like between boulders, on high walls, around electrical poles, on the edges of superhighways and through fences. Often found thriving in abandoned, viper-infested ruins or in rocky valleys and mountain ridges, making getting to this fruit an extreme sport.
Mountains of prickly pears line the roadside spreading out into the uncultivated land; they, too, thrive in the lava soil and produce a much-loved fruit in Sicily. The flat, irregular, spindly leaves of the fica d'india are oval-shaped, a little bit bigger than a table tennis racquet.
Literally, the Indian fig, the fruit of this cactus, ripens gradually around the edges of its leaves. After negotiating the endless prickles of the plant and cutting around the spiky skin of the fruit, the sweet fleshy pulp filled with pips is eaten with particular relish by locals. The hard seeds are trying to get past and get stuck between the teeth, but most Sicilians swallow them and enjoy the refreshing melon-like flesh.
Growing between pistachios and prickly pear crops are the magnificent olive trees which love the broken-down lava mineral-rich soil. Olive trees have been planted on the island since ancient Greek times and are a staple part of the cuisine and landscape.
Known as the Barbary fig, this species is cultivated worldwide and is considered native to Mexico. The Berbers of Morocco also know it, and the most well-known types were imported to Sicily from the Americas in the sixteenth century.
The oval-shaped prickly pear has hard skin with little spikes like needle tips. It is difficult to imagine how someone discovered the extraordinary nature of this intimidating delicacy on earth. Still, many people enjoy this painfully acquired discovery to enjoy the treat. Some make a marmalade from this exotic fruit, which is often crushed, deseeded and strained, then left to dry out in the sun to become a chewy candy. Yet, another ancient staple to be consumed in the winter.
Sicilians love this exotic fruit served fresh after being cooled in the refrigerator.
As for their taste, tiny hard pips dominate the first bite, but the soft flesh around them is pretty refreshing and sweet, like a melon. There are many varieties the red ones are the most vibrant, but there are also orange, green and so-called white ones which are golden. But eating too many has a sneaky habit of making people painfully constipated.
The love of this versatile fruit has seen the fico India turned into ice cream, sorbet and even liquor. The taste is pleasant, but it would be ideal if someone could take out the pips, yet Sicilians don't seem bothered swallowing them without a second thought.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here now.
I'll keep trying to write something worthwhile, well thought out and new here every week, perhaps more often if I get in the zone.
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