Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fichi D'India: A Quintessential Sicilian Fruit

"Lo Stagnone Californiano" Oil on Canvass, Rosetta Sciacca 2012

The  fico d’India” or India Fig, is the quintessential symbol of Sicily. A new world fruit, it originates from Mexico and is thought to have been brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. Transported on ships, it was known to prevent scurvy, which is not suprising given its rich vitamin C content.  The prickly pear plant or cactus is seen throughout Sicily, and likely is abundant there because it thrives in sandy, arid soil and hot climates.  In Sicily it is consumed mainly raw as fruit.   I am not aware of historic recipes that utilize the cooked fruit, although one can readily find preserves of various types, juices and liqueurs made of the fruit.
There are two essential things to know about this sweet and exotic fruit: how to handle it and what to expect when eating it. Handle the fruit and the cactus plant with great care as they have fine thorns that easily pierce the skin and are hard to remove. When picking prickly pears off  the cactus plant, always use gloves and place it in a bucket of cold water. The thorns will fall off in water in a matter of minutes, but if you are meticulous, as I am, about not getting thorns on your fingers, you may want to keeps your gloves on and scrub the unpeeled fruit with a brush while it is soaking.

Peel the fruit by slicing off the ends (I use a fork to do this), make a slit down the center, then peel the two sides back to expose the colorful fruit. A prickly pear is refreshing and sweet to the taste, but filled with hard little seeds, which you learn to ignore as a minor inconvenience.  When making jam I like to leave a few seeds in because the look is more authentically like fichi d’India!  Because of the abundance of prickly pear this year, I made jam by cooking equal parts fichi d’india that have been passed though a food mill to remove the seeds,  and sugar, along with the juice of one lemon, following traditional canning instructions. The results were quite delicious.
Always serve fichi d’India cold or chilled. My mother likes to put the unpeeled fruit in basket outside in the patio overnight and eat them in the morning while they are still slightly chilled.

In Sicily the prickly pear image is seen on ceramic plates, sculptures and other decorative arts and is viewed as archetypally Sicilian.  I have chosen to paint them in my work entitled "Lo Stagnone Californiano" an oil on canvass,  posted above.

Ciao a presto!

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