Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age

The Very Versatile Prickly Pear


It’s a sign, a sign that summer is coming to an end, when the fruit of the prickly pear begins to ripen all over the hillsides of the island, and market, and even supermarket, displays contain boxes of them.  I spotted these on a walk a couple of weeks back.  Looks like there will be a plentiful crop this year!

They will be very familiar to American friends, because they grow all over the Americas, even up into Canada apparently, but not such a common sight for English folk. This week I spotted some in a local supermarket, and it struck me that I would have considered them to be very exotic 20-odd years back, but now they are as common as blackberries are in the late summer countryside of England……and equally, if not more dangerous!  They are not called prickly pears in English for nothing! They are quite delicious and refreshing, but very difficult to eat! I was shown how to peel them some years back, but was never successful; so I compromise by sticking a fork into one, cutting it in half, and using the fork to put it into an egg cup and scooping out the fruit inside as if I am eating a boiled egg! Someone recently volunteered to show me again…..but I can’t remember who said it……if you read this, someone, please let me know!

At this time of year it’s very common to see people by the roadside harvesting the wild fruit, exactly as we used to go blackberrying in England, but be very, very careful if you do!  Not only do they have the spikes you can see, but they’re covered with very fine, thinner than a hair, spikes which are difficult to spot, but which are extremely irritating and sometimes painful when you get them in hands or legs……thick gloves are to be recommended!!

It isn’t just the fruit which is edible either.  In Mexico the young, flat leaves are used in cooking.  There is a Mexican restaurant here in Guaraguacho which makes a yummy ensalada de napoles (the Spanish name for the young leaves) with them.

In the Canary Islands the production of cochineal was a major industry in years gone by.  The beetles from which cochineal is made live and breed on the cactus, so there are still places where you see them growing on terraces where they were cultivated.  In fact, with opinion worldwide turning against artificial flavorings and colorings, the industry is reviving, so if you like to bake check out the wee bottle of cochineal on your kitchen shelf to see if it came from the Canary Islands.


Author: IslandMomma

Exploring island life and the freedoms of Third Age: Challenging myself every day: writing, traveling, snapping pix, running & teaching ESL

8 thoughts on “The Very Versatile Prickly Pear

  1. In Algeria, they’re called “kermous” or “figues de Barbarie”. I love them and you find them all over. They’re often planted around houses as a deterrent to burglars! Tarik is an expert in cutting them open – must be in the blood.

    • Hah! Then he can teach me :=) I read somewhere that they were introduced to Australia and used as fencing there, but that they became rampant and had to be exterminated! (That’s the short version of course i.e. what I remember!) They don’t seem to be all that invasive here though, odd. Maybe something to do with the soil?

  2. I’m always amazed to see them on sale at this time of year in supermarkets and farmers’ markets when they’re growing all over the island for free! But I reckon it’s because they’re too tricky for the unskilled to harvest! I didn’t know that cochineal was making a come back, I hope they don’t reintroduce the industry here – not the prettiest of landscapes 😦

  3. I always think that too! When we lived in UK we had damson trees in our orchard, and every year I used to haul them down to the local greengrocer in the village, but, honestly, he didn’t even want them because he was swamped! Mind you, a lot easier to pick!! I now have two offers on how to peel them, so watch this space!

    That’s true. I think it was in Lanzarote I read about it. I haven’t been there for years, but even 20 yrs ago there were still terraces there, where it had been harvested, and the cacti grown, in the past. Although, last year there was a celebration of cochineal nearby here in Buzanada, where you could go for a talk and demonstration, so I’m not sure whether that is a working finca or not, I couldn’t go, but hope to if they repeat it this year.

    Someone suggested on FB that cochineal is the same as the ‘orrible white fly which curses the palms here, but although it looks the same I can’t see that it is, do you have any idea?

  4. well – blackberry picking is well underway here and I have done everything except jam! always wondered about prickly pears and so this has answered another of those ‘cultural differences’ for me. I have always dreamed of having an orchard, chosing varieties and caring for fruit trees BUT not going to happen and guess what now I think about it – do I want the work of what harvesting the crop brings i.e. days in the kitchen bottling, jamming, baking etc NOPE i do not.

  5. jejeje true – been there, done that! When we lived in Treales we had so many damsons we didn’t know what to do with them!!! Of course everyone else had their crop at the same time! If only I’d had internet then to find more recipes! As it was I exhausted all I had – I can’t face them now!

    Here it was a quite cool, though, when I had a house we had mango, oranges, lemons and a fruit called nispero which isn’t that common, even here, but we could just pick as we needed. That said all I did was water, I didn’t have the time or enthusiasm to devote to them.

  6. now here’s a spooky thing – we once put a bid in for a cottage in Treales. it was a long time ago, pre kids for sure, so early seventies I suppose, anyway we didn’t get it, or I might have had an orchard, it did have a massive pear tree in the back garden and other fruit trees too. so we could have been neighbours! do-do do-do !!

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