The prickly pear cactus: a journey to discover the symbol of the Sicilian landscape and its hidden treasures.
Among all the pieces of the multi-coloured Sicilian identity, a place of honor belongs to the Opuntia ficus-indica, the prickly pear cactus - also known as Indian fig or fig opuntia. If you close your eyes just for a moment and try to imagine the skyline of a typical Sicilian landscape, a prickly pear will eventually pop up, with a couple of fruits here and there.
Sicilian landscape with prickly pears - source cittametropolitana.pa.it
This plant is so linked to Sicily in Sicilian's collective imagination that we rarely think about the fact that it wasn’t born here, but comes from Mexico instead. However, it had plenty of time to become 100% Sicilian over the centuries.
The prickly pear is a colonizing plant, which means it has a tendency to wipe out local vegetation and take its place. That’s because it is extremely resilient and easily adapts to warm climates. This factor makes it so easy for the plant to grow that still today the crop is fully natural and sustainable.
The prickly pear has a number of beneficial properties, from the cladode (in Italian, the pala) to the flowers and of course the fruits.
Some of its traditional uses have been lost in time: for instance the pala (without its thorns) was used to season the salad. It could also be cooked - mostly in the oven - and was said to be a natural remedy against tonsillitis or malaria.
Here in Castelbuono we have a tradition that survives up to this day: the pala is used in the harvesting of manna as a natural container for the part that drops from the main “cannolo” after the trunk has been cut.
Prickly pear fruits - source catania.italiani.it
The fruits - which are called the same way as the plants (fichi d’india in Italian) - are the most tasty and juicy part of the prickly pear and can vary a lot in colour, size, consistency and sweetness. They’re harvested either in August or in October. In August, the fruits are small, with a concentrated and strong taste. In October instead, the fruits are obtained through a technique called scozzolatura: in June the fruits are cut, together with the cladode, leaving the plants to bloom again in October. This second time the fruits - called Scozzolati or Bastardoni - are bigger and sweeter.
The most known fruit varieties of the prickly pear are: the yellow fruit, the most common, which has a sweet taste and a soft consistency. The red variety, which is among the most appreciated: its peel and pulp are ruby red, it is particularly sweet and crumbly, and has less seeds that the other varieties. Finally, the finest variety, the white fruit: the peel is green and to non-experts might look like an unripe fruit, but it’s just on the outside: the pulp is actually very sweet and crispy.
Some varieties are recognized as “excellencies of the territory” by the Sicilian Region and two of them - the San Cono and the Etna variety - are actually enlisted as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) products.
On Putia.eu, you'll find the Cactus mood collection, with many prickly pear-inspired products. From the crocheted mini-plants by Maria Maggio to the soaps and shaving products by Saponificio Varesino, up until our signature product: Pala & Paletta, the prickly pear-shaped cutting board, deeply connected to Castelbuono and Sicily in general.
We have to admit, there is something about us Sicilians and the symbols we “choose” to represent our identity. We’re quite good at it to be sure, as in the case of the Opuntia ficus-indica, a plant capable of such resilience and adaptability that it perfectly fits the Sicilian landscape.
We should ask ourselves at this point, it is us who pick the symbol or the symbol that “chooses” us?
Cover picture - source meteoweb.eu