The Prickly Pears, or Fichi d’India, of Calabria
I’ve traveled to Calabria on many occasions (both as a child and adult) and the landscape continually amazes me. The startling changes in elevation, for example, travelling on the numerous, via Nazionale, switchbacks from Bagnara Calabra on the coast to Pellegrina in the hills is mind blowing. And One’s line of vision is intersected with steep lush green mountainside and deep blue ocean all in the same visual field (like wearing 3D goggles) . Once in the country side, the terrain is dotted with fig, pear, peach, and olive trees. The sky is nearly always blue, which is both a blessing and a curse, and the aforementioned flat country side gives way to farms nesteled on mountain sides (worked in the step farming tradition).
Of all the exoticism found in the Calabrese landscape the fichi d’india, or prickly pears, stand out as particularly interesting. Prickly pears, which are not native to Calabria, typically grow with flat, rounded branches that include a spine and prickles (these come off the plant and can penetrate underneath the skin). Typically, the prickly pears in Calabria grow in clusters and are ubiquitous throughout the countryside. Harvesting and peeling a fichi d’india is moderately difficult given the sharp needles on the tough exterior skin of the fruit. Most Calabrians devise a long implement (usually a stick with a metal can on the end) to reach for the fruit. Once the fruit is peeled it’s red, fleshy, skin (there are also white and orange colored fruit) is slightly sweet and very refreshing (including tiny digestible seeds). I’ve only consumed prickly pears as a snack or dessert after a meal, but other applications include jam, juice (making sure to add some acidity like lemon juice), and vinaigrette. Finally, prickly pears have a relatively high level of Vitamin C.