Once prickled, twice shy

chumbera 1

MY early-morning runs continue to deliver intriguing insights into this strange and perplexing country. Today, as I emerge from a shadowy track onto the main road, I see a motorcyclist park his bike and begin to pick prickly pears from a large and ferocious roadside cactus. He keeps his gloves on, which is a good idea, while he fills his back-box with the golden fruit. The motorcyclist ignores me as I pad past. Picking prickly pears requires concentration . . .

My dad told me about prickly pears when I was a boy. He was stationed in Malta in the early 1950s and they eat lots of prickly pears there because the only other option is rabbits.

Consequently, I have this pseudo-nostalgic image of prickly pears being a sort of mythical fruit from the Fifties. I associate them with piano accordions, Mackeson’s stout and Hank Williams. They are up there in the great scheme of things with the Korean War and Andy Stewart. Mind you, by the age of ten I’d never seen anything more exotic than a blood orange, so it’s hardly surprising.

Now here, at this dusty roadside in the Sierra Nevada foothills, as the sun rises into a white Andalucian sky, is this motorcyclist filling his back-box with the mythical fruit. “Buenos dias,” I croak as I plod past. He doesn’t flinch, just carries on picking.

chumbera 2 chumbera 3 chumbera 4Back at our rented house there’s a big ugly cactus – or chumbera, as they call them here – that hangs over from the neighbouring plot. It is laden with prickly pears that look just ripe enough to pluck. I get on the internet to search YouTube for the safest way to gather and eat them, because about six years ago I had a nasty experience with prickly pears and ended up with very painful spiny things in my fingers and lips. This time I intend to do the job properly.

YouTube delivers two very different videos, both from the US. In the first, a plump and jolly black woman uses a plastic bag to gather the pears. Then she places them in a bowl of water and swishes them about to remove their delicate spines. She then pats them dry on kitchen paper, slices off the ends, slits them from top to bottom and peels off the skin, rather effortlessly, with the point of her knife.

In the second video, this white Texan chap produces an acetylene torch which has the ferocity of a Saturn 5 rocket and proceeds to incinerate the nearest giant cactus. All the little prickly pears flare up before smouldering sulkily. I am reminded of that scene from A Bridge Too Far where two of Anthony Hopkins’ men take out a German pill-box with a flame-thrower on Arnhem Bridge and accidentally set fire to an ammunition store. The poor little prickly pears don’t even get chance to shout “Himmel”.

The Texan then explains how to pick prickly pears in what he calls a survival situation. “Hell, make a torch.”

chumbera 5 chumbera 6I follow the black woman’s advice, but substituting a pair of rigger’s gloves for the plastic bag. The exercise is successful and the fruit is juicy and sweet. The pips are a bit crunchy, but apparently they can be dried and ground into flour. Not that I have any intention of doing that.

chumbera 7chumbera 8My father would have been 83 last week. It would be nice to think he’s sitting on the flight deck of that big aircraft carrier in the sky eating prickly pears, but if given the choice I have no doubt he’d opt for the rabbit – accompanied by something pale from a Highland distillery.

Prickly pears are delicious but I think I’ll stick to oranges and bananas because you can peel them without taking your eyes off the telly. By the way, whatever happened to blood oranges?

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13 thoughts on “Once prickled, twice shy

  1. Hank Williams I know of. But Andy Stewart, Mackeson stout and prickly pears that is new to me. Seems I don’t have to go travelling to explore a lot of new stuff. I just have to read your post, Alen. I am very excited about the Texan model. The only thing missing is Rico (Madagascar) with his explosives. Big Smiley Thing!
    Take care, (I mean in general and not only with the Prickly pears)
    Hanna

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    1. Ah, Hanna. I can speak with some authority about Mackeson stout because it was my father’s favourite tipple for many years – it is what is known as a milk stout because it is brewed with lactose from milk. Andy Stewart was a Scottish singer and we had several of his records – Donald Where’s Your Troosers being the one that immediately springs to mind.
      Rico (Madagascar) would not have been out of place in that video.
      All the best, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  2. OOOhh, I hoped there wasn’t going to be any pain involved! I’m glad you survived unscathed! I enjoyed your take on this, Alen, and I love the fact that you had a go with all guns blazing. I’m still coping with the association with Hank Williams. Who is Hank Williams? In my mind, I’m seeing Hank Marvin but that’s not really working either.

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    1. Hank Williams was an American country and western singer from the late 1940s and 1950s. My father said that out in the Far East, the only music that British sailors had access to was on the US services radio channels, and country music was a big thing. Consequently, we had loads of Hank Williams and Slim Whitman 78s lying about the house. And don’t tell me you don’t know what 78s are because I won’t believe you!
      Cheers, Alen

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  3. I was wondering if you found yourself humming “Bear Necessities” from ‘The Jungle Book’ when you were picking those prickly pears… it’s usually the first thing that pops into my mind whenever ‘prickly pear is mentioned ; )
    Hope you’re settling in alright Alen.
    Cheers, Mike

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  4. They do look a lot of hard work. I’d probably try them once and then give up. But I suppose it is food for free. Found a huge mushroom for my tea the other night – they seem to be getting quite rare nowadays…
    Carol.

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    1. Hi Carol. I’ve tried them a couple of times but no matter how careful you are you always get a couple of prickles in your fingers. And they are impossible to remove.
      I’m going to miss mushrooms. The best place I ever found was in the fields around Hurst, above Richmond. Bags of them.
      Cheers, Alen

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  5. WordPress hid this post from me! We had neither Hank Williams nor Andy Stewart records in our house, but that didn’t stop the buggers somehow seeping into our consciousness. Must have been Stewart’s New Years tv shows.

    Mackesons stout was the only alcohol we were allowed as kids, and only in small quantities. And there’s a risk of entering Four Yorkshiremen mode here because blood oranges were like Birds of Paradise where I lived. Exotic fruit was a green banana.

    And I reckon Bear Grylls would harvest prickly pears with his teeth (even with a van load of asbestos gloves at his disposal).

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    1. Hi Chris. That gave me a laugh. Andy Stewart also had a weekly TV programme called The White Heather Club, which we were forced to watch as kids, although foot-tapping was not compulsory. Blood oranges were all the rage at one time, then they disappeared without trace. Perhaps it was some sort of mass inoculation scheme or experiment into social engineering. I shall look into that.
      I’d like to see Bear Grylls harvest prickly pears with his teeth. That’s one reality programme I would watch.
      Cheers, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

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