Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Prickly Pear

Yesterday in the brief discussion of the fig, I made mention of the ‘cochineal cactus’, a plant belonging to the genus Opuntia of the cactus family. It is native to the Americas, and has been extremely important in the culture and economy of Mexico. The plant goes by many popular names. It was included in our story yesterday because of its alternative names of ‘Indian fig’ and ‘Jamaica fig’, but it is also known as the nopal, tuna, paddle cactus, and prickly pear – and of course, as the ‘cochineal cactus’.

There are a large number of species within the genus Opuntia, many with medicinal and culinary applications. The prickly pear (its favoured name in Australia) is used to make candy, jam and jelly, and various alcoholic drinks, but its most important culinary contribution – and without doubt its most important economic value - is an indirect one. The cactus plays host to a scale insect called Dactylopius coccus, which is the source of the red dye, cochineal. It is difficult to overestimate the commercial value of this dye throughout history – but more on that tomorrow.

The cactus was introduced to many countries around the world where the climate is suitable. In Australia, it was introduced along with the First Fleet, in 1788. It was picked up by Governor Philip during the stopover in Brazil, no doubt because of the potential for entry into the lucrative cochineal market. It became a garden plant in the 1830’s, and as we know, gardeners love to share cuttings of interesting plants. Its value as animal fodder hard times, and as a natural fencing strategy were also reasons for its promotion. It must have seemed like the perfect crop for the new colony.

The prickly pear loved this country. Instead of becoming a lucrative crop however, was rapidly elevated to the status of a noxious weed - one of the most devastating introduced plants in the country’s history. The rate of spread was incredible. Up to a million acres a year of fine agricultural land was destroyed by the prickly ‘green hell’. In 1919 The Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board was established to try to eradicate the problem, and success was finally achieved with the introduction of another species – this time, the cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, the larvae of which feed on the plant.

Pockets of the plant persist of course in Australia, and the fruit of this ‘weed’ can occasionally be purchased in up-market fruit shops – an ironic situation for a noxious weed indeed. Enterprising farmer’s wives in the early days were not about to waste something perfectly edible, even if prickly and difficult to handle, and the obvious solution was to make jam or jelly.

Prickly Pear Jam.
Following is the recipe for "cactus fruit" or prickly pear jam. Great care is required in preparing it, and tho procees is rather troublesome owing to the number of small prickles or thorns which are on the fruit. Peel the fruit and cut in half lengthwise; then sprinkle with sugar and let stand for twelve hours; boil quickly for half an hour; then add sugar in the proportion of three-quarters to one pound of fruit, and boil altogether for an hour. When it is done it will jelly quickly if a small quantity be placed on a plate, and is of a rich wine color. The fruit should be just ripe.
Australian Town and Country Journal,  7 August 1886

Prickly Pear Jelly.
Great care is required in preparing it; and the process is rather troublesome, owing to the number of small prickles or thorns which are on the fruit. The following is the mode of making the jelly. Pare and cut lengthwise 3 lb. of prickly pear. Put them into a stewpan with a teacupful of water. When reduced to pulp put them into a jelly-bag. Let them drain all night. They must not be squeezed. Next morning put the juice into a saucepan, being careful not to put any sediment with it, adding l lb of sugar to every pint of juice, and a few drops of the essence of vanilla. Boil until it will stiffen when cold. Cover the jars as soon as possible.
Australian Town and Country Journal , 12 October 1889

Quotation for the Day.
Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.”
Robert Fulghum


Les said...

I see these in the grocery stores, more so in Texas, but never have the courage to buy them. The Mexicans use then in savory dishes.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Les. There was a 'cactus salad' at one of the dinners at the Oxford Symposium last year - I had forgotten that when i wrote the post. The mind boggles at the thought of de-prickling huge quantities of the stuff!