Fresh prickly pear fruits – 24/08/2020
Maltese summer time is often characterised by the abundance of fresh summer fruits, and perhaps one of the much sought after fruit is that of the Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica, Bajtar tax-Xewk). The prickly pear fruit, covered all over by minute spines offers much more than what meets the eye.
The tree is adapted to thrive in dry conditions – as a succulent it can absorb and retain water efficiently. The leaves are reduced to thin spines, and the stems’ waxy surface helps the plant to reduce water losses from transpiration.
Together with several other plant species, such as potato, peppers and tomatoes, the Prickly Pear was brought over to Europe from America, following the discovery of the American continent in 1492. In Malta, the tree was probably introduced in 16th century and by time, it became naturalised and part of the agricultural landscape. The first reference to the Prickly Pear in Malta dates back to 1750.
Between August and September, the typical prickly pear fruit is ready to be harvested. Careful peeling of the thick outer skin exposes the edible fruit with a bright red, wine-red, green or yellow-orange flesh containing many tiny seeds. In the Maltese Islands, the fruits are differentiated by colour. The red variety is locally called Aħmar or Ingliż (British) due to the British army’s uniform colour. The white strain is locally called Abjad-Franċiż (French) in reference to the white flag held by the French to give up Malta to the British. The other yellow fruit variety is called Isfar-Malti (Maltese). Another variety called Tax-xitwa, has a dark-coloured fruit which ripens between October and December. Unless picked by man, animal or bird, the edible fruits remain on the plant.
The fruit and leaves of prickly pears can be eaten, provided that the skin and prickles are removed. The fruit is useful in terms of its health benefits, being rich in anti-oxidants and Vitamin C. If we eat three of the fruit a day, our daily requirement of vitamin C would be met. Whilst the Prickly pear has been used in traditional folk medicine, nowadays the cactus, fruits and stems are the subject of numerous studies due to their positive health-related properties.
The pulp of the prickly pear makes excellent jam, jellies and preserves. Throughout the years, The Cliffs Interpretation Centre has been producing Prickly Pear jam to increase the public appreciation of this often neglected fruit.