I've taken this warning from Baloo the bear deeply to heart. This is hardly surprising given the amount of times I watched The Jungle Book when I was younger and saw him dance and prance around teaching Mowgli about going with the flow and the 'Bear Necessities' of life. “Don't pick the prickly pear by the paw. When you pick a pear, try to use the claw”. Sound advice to be sure. But what about the rest of us that, like Mowgli, aren’t great big bears with paws and claws?
Indeed, whenever I’ve gone anywhere near these cantankerous cacti myself, even if I avoid the more obvious thorns, there are a million tiny little sneaky ones that somehow get stuck in. I've been watching this year as these opportunistic opuntias first display beautiful orange flowers that slowly turn into these fearsome fruits. However, nobody seems to pick them and they end up dropping onto the floor untouched.
This made me wonder if there is anybody out there who is actually brave enough to eat them?
This is exactly the question I posed to the green-keyboarded gardeners on the Gardening in Portugal Facebook group. It wasn't long before I found out, through a whole stream of notifications, that there are indeed many such daredevils among us. Apparently, it’s all about technique and wearing suitable protection. There were lots of warnings to not go anywhere near them with anything short of armoured gloves (it sounds like even a bulletproof vest wouldn’t go amiss). And indeed, following Baloo's advice, they recommended using a surrogate claw. A pair of tongs being the most suggested option.
Once picked safely, it seems you still aren’t out of the woods just yet.
You need to then get rid of the tiny little (almost invisible) spikes on the surface. Now, lots of people suggested a few different ways of doing this. Some people said you simply roll them in the sand. The more cautious cacti-lovers said that you should take them home and wash them in a sieve over your sink. However, the most suggested way, and that I think really befits the dangerous and wild nature of this fruit, is to burn them off using a blow torch (or indeed by holding them over any kind of flame). You then open them up being careful of the pips that are apparently so hard they can break your teeth.
Gosh, it all sounds a bit much to me. But the many gardeners' comments came in from all over the world and insisted they are indeed delicious, with people claiming to make sorbet, margaritas, chutney and juice (apparently Compal even makes one). One lady said her horses love them and happily gobble them up. And another chap said that they can cause constipation if you eat too many and thus are a “good medicine for the reverse”.
They are called Figos da India and I was told they can even be found in Aldi. However, word of warning, another chap said he bought some, but even though they were supposed to be ‘de-prickled’ and he handled them with the utmost care, he still got spikes stuck in his hand anyway. He concluded that from now on he was going to "stick to fruit that doesn’t fight back".
A man after my own heart I would say. I will only try them if it really is a ‘bear necessity’ or with somebody who knows what they are doing - and eats one first!