A prickly harvest

A common sight in Mediterranean gardens like ours

The Mallorcans call them figues de moro, or Moorish figs, but I just call them dangerous. The prickly pear cactus or Opuntia ficus-indica, if you want to go all Monty Don, is a common sight in rural Mediterranean gardens. Some people grow vast ‘bushes’ of it around the perimeter of their property, as a kind of burglar deterrent. A not unwise choice, since the large flat leaves of this prolific plant are covered in tiny spines that can be extremely irritating if they get into your skin. I speak from personal experience.

We usually avoid going too near our large prickly pear cactus, which borders a short stretch of the lane that leads down into the valley. Funnily enough, when our outdoor cats were kittens, they used to leap from leaf to leaf without any apparent problems, but on the occasion that I stood up from weeding the ground underneath our plant and my forehead hit a leaf on the way up, I had no such luck.

I rushed into the house and looked into the mirror, expecting to see the tiny spines sticking out of my skin. I couldn’t see anything, but if I brushed my hand over my forehead, I could certainly feel them. Dozens of them. The Boss spent a patient half hour or so with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers extracting the irritating little devils from my skin. Not an experience I wish to repeat.

Which is why, at this time of the year, when the prickly pear fruits are ripe for the picking, you won’t find me harvesting them. I’ve never eaten one (which I perhaps should rectify) but have heard mixed reports: some people say they’re pretty tasteless, others describe them as delicious. I have a recipe for prickly pear sorbet, but doubt I’ll ever make it. You see, the fruits also have these nasty little spines, and the job of peeling the fruits puts me off.

Last week, a large old Mercedes stopped outside our gates, and the driver hooted for our attention. He turned out to be a passing Moroccan who had spotted our vast crop of prickly pear fruits and wanted to know if he could have some. It seems a pity that they go to waste, so we told him to help himself to as many as he wanted. I hope his wife had some good thick gloves . . .

Handle at your peril!

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