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.
Back 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.”
I 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.
My 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?