The history of the prickly pear, Opuntia ficus-indica,  seems to mirror the prickly pear itself –  a contentious fruit, both loved and hated – sometimes simultaneously, difficult but ultimately rewarding.

Native to Mexico and surrounding areas  it seems that the prickly pear arrived in South Africa in the mid eighteenth century  and is considered both a scourge as well as a godsend according to Luvuyo Wotshela and William Beinart in Prickly Pear – A Social History of a Plant in the Eastern Cape. I was so taken by the review I read, The phenomenal, pliable, palatable prickly pear!,  that I bought and downloaded the book immediately.

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The prickly pear has travelled through South African history on a roller coaster of popularity. From being a valuable protection against scurvy, a fodder for animals and an impenetrable fence to being an invasive alien that spread itself over millions of acres. And now  it is a gourmet food exported to food lovers in France and a crop that is likely to prove to be of huge value with increasing global warming. All the while the fruit has been prized as a typically South African ingredient used in beer and witblits, syrups and jams as well as medicinally.

My mother spent much of her childhood in the Eastern Cape and always spoke fondly of  eating prickly pears and swimming in farm dams overhung with Acacia Karoo. In my childhood we had a prickly pear plant at the bottom of our garden in Kyalami and my younger sister and I, out on one of our regular forays into the veld, decided to harvest some of the fruits as a surprise for our mother. We had no receptacle with us so we scooped up our matching floral skirts(cut down from frocks made for a special Volkspele occasion at our school)and gathered piles of the fruits into them. We raced up to the house yelling with excitement for our mother to come to the kitchen to see our wonderful harvest. No sooner had we tumbled the mountain of prickly pears onto the yellow Formica table than we were weeping with the pain of the hundreds of spines embedded in our legs and tummies.

That incident caused me to be wary of prickly pears. Although I was still infected with my mother’s fondness and nostalgia for the fruit that evoked what seemed like a perfect childhood. 

My most recent harvest of prickly pears landed on my black granite kitchen counter in a box, thankfully despined, courtesy of, and with great thanks to, my Limpopo friend Merle of Barok and her very generous sister. 

Prickly pears

Merle said prickly pears should really be eaten ice cold so into the fridge they went. That night we scattered the gem-like discs into a simple green salad that was the perfect accompaniment to roast chicken done the Nico Ladenis way – with honey, black pepper and tarragon. I have been using this recipe as my preferred method for roasting chicken since I first came upon it in an article entitled Cooking the Books by Phillipa Cheifitz in the November 1989 edition of South African Cosmopolitan. I have never actually followed the recipe slavishly. For instance, I never have and never will use just one sprig of tarragon. I stuff the entire cavity with as much tarragon as possible – more like six stalks of it. I often omit the butter and even forgot the fact that the recipe included garlic What I do is always use way more honey and black pepper than the recipe instructs.

Nico Ladenis chicken

A couple of days flew by and I started feeling guilty about the prickly pears in the fridge so I went to my usual resource, Google, to see what else I could do with them. None of my trusted online advisors, Hugh and Yottam, came up with anything – but Bonnie Stern did. The prickly pear with goats cheese, lime and mint salad that emerged for supper that night was the freshest, most delicious combination of ingredients you could imagine.

prickly pear with goat cheese

Sticking to the salad theme  the following night I stir-fried some chicken breasts and served them on a bed of lettuce, coriander, couscous and lentils. Then I added the gem-like discs of prickly pear and served the salad with a lightly curried honeyed dressing.

Prickly pear with lightly curried chicken

I turned the remaining prickly pears into a glorious golden jelly infused with rosemary, black peppercorns and bay leaves.

jelly - prickly pear

The jelly is delicious with:

  • Cheese
  • Lamb steaks. Glaze with the jelly and roast at a very high heat on a bed of fresh rosemary and bay leaves with generous grindings of black pepper and coarse salt
  • Mushroom ragout and polenta

prickly pear with lamb steaks

In the near future I’ll definitely  be trying a prickly pear cake! (p 232 of  Prickly Pear – A Social History of a Plant in the Eastern Cape) And I’m sorely tempted by these prickly pear jelly sweets.

The only challenge remaining – where is my next prickly pear harvest going to come from?

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