Sorry for the long hiatus since my last blog, but my time has been mostly filled with deadlines and dentists. In my absence Autumn has arrived, covering the land with a lush green carpet and beckoning us out into the garden. It always amazes me how after, just 36-hours of rain, colour returns replacing the red, arid summer landscape.
I think autumn in southern Italy feels much like spring in Northern Europe. Instead of warming up a little, however a temperature drop a few degrees and the arrival of rain, signals an awakening of a dormant land and a reinvigoration of the soul.
As well as grass and flowers popping up everywhere, the chicks we got back in May have gone into full-on egg production, while the dogs have forsaken their nocturnal summer ways in favour of daytime exploring, hunting and playing and evenings spent snoring on the sofa.
Invigorated we’ve got most our winter crops planted and have gathered the last fruit and nuts before the olive harvest begins again next month. We had such a good crop of almonds this year that I swapped a couple of bags full for some walnuts. Both Jeremy and myself look like we’ve been fingerprinted, but our black fingertips are the result of getting walnuts from their husks rather than a visit to the carabinieri. Honest guv!
It’s also time for harvesting some of our more exotic, but fiddly fruit. I like the taste of both prickly pears and pomegranates and was determined, despite their trickiness to harvest and prepare, to find ways to preserve them this year.
Italians generally eat chilled raw prickly pears, or fichi d’India (Indian figs) as they are called here, after dinner. Whilst I like the taste, which is somewhere between a kiwi and a raspberry, I really can’t be bothered with the bullet-like pips each fruit contains.
To get round this I usually just shove them in the juicer and it makes for a rather nice drink, which lends itself to cocktail making.
Before you can start juicing, however you need to pick your prickly pears and de-spine them, hopefully, without spiking yourself. I’ve got a wonderful prickly pear picker. It’s simple, yet effective and only cost a couple of Euros. Attached to a long pole I place it over the fruit, before turning it to one side to twist a prickly pear off. You can just use kitchen tongs but as our prickly pears are rather high up, I rather like the added protection the pole provides.
Prickly pears deserve their name as both the plant and fruit are covered in tiny hair-like spines that irritate the skin and are really difficult to remove. I’ve tried soaking them in water and pouring running water over them to remove the spines, but there are always a sneaky few that end up in between my fingers to drive me insane.
I thought I’d try the Native American approach this time though and use fire to get rid of the spines. Instead of a campfire, I held them over a camping stove and for the first time ever I managed to remain spine-free.
Prickly pear jelly
To make prickly pear jelly quarter the fruits and cover them with a little water and cook for around 10-minutes to soften them. Then crush the fruit with a potato masher before straining them between two layers of muslin. This may seem excessive but a neighbour got a spine in his mouth a couple of years back and it became so swollen and sore that he could only consume liquid food for a couple of weeks.
Pour 4 cups of prickly pear juice (around 2 kilos of fruit) and add half a cup of lemon juice. Mix a cup of sugar with some pectin and add to the juice. Bring to the boil and then add two more cups of sugar and bring back to a full boil. Boil for one minute stirring continuously before pouring into sterilised jars. It’s a little on the sweet side but it has a rather delicate and interesting flavour.
While I love the idea of cactus cooking, I’ve not felt brave enough to try the pads (nopalitos) yet although they are a popular green in Mexico. Apparently they taste like green beans but with the texture of okra. An Italian friend tried them a few years back and she confirmed that they were a bit on the slimy side.
Pomegranates are definitely more pippy than slimy, but sadly only available for a short period, so this year I’ve decide to freeze some pips and to make pomegranate molasses. To freeze, quarter the fruit and hold them over a bowl to get the pips out. Spread the pips on a baking tray and flash freeze. When frozen bag them up to use on salads throughout the year.
I also juiced some pips to drink, which you could also freeze. To make the molasses you need to use bitter pomegranates, which we have plenty of, although only the chickens have enjoyed them up till now.
Once juiced, pour four cups of pomegranate juice, half a cup of sugar and a tablespoon of lemon juice into a pan and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Keep on a medium to low heat until it has reduced to around one cup’s worth of liquid (around 70 mins) or the consistency of thick syrup. Bottle and store in the fridge.
It’s wonderfully tangy and I’m really looking to cooking with it, as I’m a big fan of Middle Eastern food. It can be added to drinks (grenadine should be made with pomegranate syrup), marinades (for meat, fish and veg), salad dressings, soups, stews and rice based dishes.
If you don’t have any pomegranate trees but fancy the sound of molasses then buy yourself some juice and get molassing.