How to peel a prickly cactus fruit and why you should

You go into the super market, or even the wonderful food market in El Cabanyal, El Maestrat or Valencia (have to talk about the places I know) and do you ever see prickly cactus fruit for sale? The short and long answer is no. It is like selling dandelions. In these mediterranean countries all you have to do is stop at the side of the road somewhere and pick them for free.

But not many do, at least not anymore. Never seen a cactus fruit at any home, table or bar. No jams of it either. It just does not seem to exist, not even in Restaurant Pou de Beca that is a member of the slow food association and only uses local foods in its menus. Lots of pumpkins, but no prickly fruit.

It is not only the fruit of the cactus that is edible, but most of the rest of it too. It grows in dry arid conditions, but does not mind rain either. You will find it in suburbia UK, blissful in conservatories and windowsills, at the back by a protected wall.

The cactus has got to be about the easiest plant in the world to grow. I have always known this. So easy that I received a brochure from the council recently telling me which non-native varieties to pull up as they were taking over Spain! Plant immigration gone wrong. Also very confusing as so many look alike.

What I never knew is that the fruit is truly delicious and has many purported medicinal properties. The locals do not seem to know about its benefits either except that it seems to be a cure for diarrhea but more on this later.

This is how the cactus fruit came into my life. I recently returned from a 3-day walk around London in inappropriate shoes – there were blisters all over my feet, severe neck pain from a heavy camera bag, and a blinding intermittent pain in my left hip. The pain was so intense I really could not walk.

A friend brought up a crutch and that kind of not really helped. Neither did further desperate measures of prescription inflammatories, nightly valium for neck, nor my usually dependable heat pad. Pain so bad considered amputation. Ok, a joke but you get the drift.

Enter the cactus fruit. Felix, he of natural medicine, showed how it should be peeled and warned me not to eat too many. Causes constipation, he advised. Ignored him and ate three fruits. Then proceeded to down a tankful of wine, he on the Rioja, me on the white – it was that kind of lovely crispy sunny autumnal day.

Went to bed early, slightly worse for wear. Woke up at 7 am feeling fit as a flea. NO hip pain, no hangover, no neck pain, and certainly no constipation.

Two days on, and several fruits more, pain free, and admittedly a bit of slowing down of the bowels, but nothing to write home about. I researched on the Internet and discovered indeed it is supposed to be:

  1. A powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant
  2. Cure for diarrhea (quelle surprise!)
  3. Good for diabetes type 2
  4. A control for high cholesterol
  5. The answer to liver disease

So there you have it, and of course none of this has been proved. For that you would need a 500,000 pound grant from some non-existent charity to tell us what the Mexicans have known for centuries. Naturally, expensive concentrated research carries more weight than that what folks have known for hundreds of years.

I have placed a basket in the back of my car for when I pass these proliferating fruits. But how to preserve them and their properties? I mean, if you make a jelly of it you have to add sugar, right? Not too good for diabetes for starters, except that apparently there is something in the cactus that stops sugar being absorbed by the intestine. So that begs the question could prickly fruit take over soya as the answer to the third world’s starvation? But no, it seems it aids weight loss as well. This by reducing your hunger/greed.

I was about to rush out and print the 7 day cactus diet when my neighbour informed me that in the suppressive Franco days there were those old folks who died from eating too many prickly fruits. Quite simply they could not get anything else, and the end result was like putting a cork on their bottoms. Need I say more? Cactus fruit seem to be full of contradictions. While the Mayo Institute says they are a known cure for diarrhea, they also say “add cautiously to your diet as they may cause the runs”! Oh well. Think I will throw caution to the wind.

Spanish translation by Anna Bellés

Felix showed me another older way of peeling a prickly cactus fruit
Felix showed me another older way of peeling a prickly cactus fruit

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