Opuntia is a genus in the cactus family, Cactaceae. also known as 'nopales'. Paddle Cactus from the resemblance to the ball-and-paddle toy. Cacti are good crops for dry areas because they efficiently convert water into biomass. The most commonly culinary species is the Indian Fig Opuntia 'Opuntia ficus-indica'. Also known as the Barbary Fig. Most culinary uses of the term 'prickly pear' refer to this species. The prickly pear was brought to Spain by Christopher Columbus and from there it spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean.  It is believed that the first ones in Crete were planted by the Venetians, to protect their crops with the thorns of the plant.


Prickly pear cacti typically grow with flat, rounded 'platyclades' (leaf or branch) that are armed with two kinds of spines - large, smooth, fixed spines and small, hairlike spines called 'glochids' that easily penetrate skin and detach from the plant.  Many types of prickly pears grow into dense, tangled structures. The fruit of prickly pears, commonly called cactus figs, Indian fig or tuna, is edible, although it has to be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before consumption. If the outer layer is not properly removed, 'glochids'  can be ingested causing discomfort of the throat, lips, and tongue as the small spines are easily lodged in the skin. Albeit, if you roll the fruit around on the ground or grit you actually can sand off the 'glochids' and eat the tasty flesh. 


The most commercially valuable use for 'Opuntia ficus-indica' today is for the large, sweet fruits, called tunas. The cactus grows wild and cultivated to heights of 3 to 5 metres. The fruits flower in three distinct colours, White, Yellow and Red. They first appear in early May through to early summer and ripen from August through October. The fruits are typically eaten, minus the thick outer skin, after chilling in a refrigerator for a few hours. They have a taste similar to a juicy extra sweet watermelon, very refreshing on a hot summer day. 


The bright red/purple, or white/yellowish flesh contains many tiny hard seeds that are usually swallowed, but should be avoided by those who have GI problems with seeds. Cactus figs are often used to make sweets and jelly and a refreshing drink. Jams and jellies are produced from the fruit, which resemble strawberries and figs in colour and flavour. The wild spiny cactus was probably introduced by Crusader knights to the Mediterranean region. In war time it was a valuable fruit for the locals to eat when food was in short supply.




More food pages
: Wine : Eating Out : Olive Oil : Honey : Ofto : Prickly Pear
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