Monday, July 15, 2013

Fichi d'India

In early June I went up the hill to Tilden Regional Park to visit my favorite botanical garden. At the entrance there is a magnificent salmon-flowered prickly-pear, which is a special favorite. Always before it sported oval orange-hued fruit perched on top of its thorny paddle- shaped leaves, but now it was loaded with exquisite salmon-colored flowers. I was entranced and started taking pictures, but tiny thorns stuck in my skin when I moved in too close. These hairy prickers, not to be confused with the bigger ones, are called glochids  and are extremely difficult to remove.

Bloom on June 11th with large thorns glistening in the sun. The glochids are not visible.

This one turned out to be a yellow-flowered variety (July)
Prickly pears in my neighborhood (December)

I noticed a beautiful specimen full of peach-colored pears in my neighborhood last December. Today I drove by and to my surprise, it was full of bright yellow flowers. I ran home to get my camera to record the plant in all its colorful glory.  On Napa Valley's Silverado Trail, by Pina winery, there is another lovely example of a prickly pear cactus. Last winter, the fruit was peachy-orange, but I haven't been back to observe the color of the flowers.. Maybe I'll call the winery, or drive up there.

       Pina winery has a huge prickly pear on Napa's Silverado trail
Orange fruit growing last winter

I see prickly pears everywhere these days; they're even selling the de-thorned leaves (nopales) at the farmer's market. But they haven't always been on my radar— it all started on a trip to Sicily in September 2009.

 Street scene in Palermo (featuring vegetables)

When we arrived in Palermo and began exploring the city, we saw patrons intently eating vividly-colored sweetmeats with knife, fork and spoon in trattorias and outdoor cafes everywhere

Typical outdoor cafe in Sicily

We had no idea what they were eating, but we were curious and vowed to find out.

Here's Dean waiting for his pizza and Birra Moretti, watching the guy at the nearby table eating the mystery dish

Artistically peeled, ready to eat fico (singular of fichi)

These colors are not enhanced—this is typical of what we saw in Palermo 

 We passed stalls of grilled peppers stuffed with olives, roast chickens and more Sicilian veggies

Then we saw some young men selling the mysterious colorful items on the street. I decided to ask them what they were. Fichi D'India they told us. Figs of India, and they handed out pieces for us to sample. They peeled the figs and assured us that they were delicious. The flavor was subtle, astringent and there were large, seemingly inedible seeds throughout the fruit, which made them difficult to eat and unpleasant to my taste. Perhaps they just don't appeal to Americans. However, judging from the excitement in Palermo, Sicilians couldn't get enough of them.

From Palermo we took a train (not the way to travel in Sicily we learned, since a bus or car could get you there in a quarter of the time) to nearby Taormina. Though they're slow and  make stops every ten minutes, the  Sicilian trains are a lovely way to meet people. On the three-hour ride, we befriended Kiki, a friendly Norwegian, who was deathly afraid of the lightening which was flashing ominously as we approached our destination. Luckily, after a torrential downpour at the station, the sun reappeared so we could enjoy our pool and the spectacular view from our hotel room high above the Ionian Sea.

Early morning view from our room at the Hotel Villa Belvedere in Taormina

In Taormina we visited the Greek amphitheatre, the first of many spectacular Sicilian ruins we saw, but Fichi d'India were in short supply, probably because of the abundance of foreign tourists who don't appreciate them.
The amphitheatre in Taormina

Leaving Taormina, we rented a car so we could see the sights on the little-traveled highways and byways. The good news was that Europcar had upgraded us to a comfy larger vehicle; the bad news was that we had difficulty navigating the narrow streets in tiny villages and on mountainous roads. We actually got stuck on a hairpin turn in Piazza Armerina, and the friendly shopkeepers had to help us struggle out of the tight corner. The crowd that had gathered to watch applauded when we finally succeeded. To celebrate we stopped for gelato. We tried to have at least two every day!

Though it's not pictured here, my favorite was always the Sicilian Pistachio gelato

We then headed South to less-touristy destinations like Ragusa, Noto, Modica and Trapani (a stronghold of the Mafia; full of shiny black cars with darkened windows.) And, of course, more photographic ruins along the way.

My favorite temple—Segesta

I'm resting against a giant column between showers
Dean testing ancient walls at the Greek temple of Selanunte

We'd shout out fichi d'India when we passed one in Sicily. We still do.

 Now that we had identified the mystery fruit we spotted them all over Sicily. In Cefalu, one of our last stops on the way back to Palermo, I discovered another beautiful fruit stand in the middle of the street. Featured in the front were crates of Fichi, ready to be peeled and enjoyed by some lucky Sicilians. I much preferred the muscat grapes, classic figs and melons, ripe and succulent in this Mediterranean mid- September.

Cefalu fruit stand with crates of fichi d'India in the foreground

We also saw a wedding party at the cathedral on the main Piazza

Piazza Duomo in Cefalu,  filled with cafes

We returned to Palermo before flying home to California, where fichi d'India are called prickly pears.
Here's a YouTube demonstration on how to prepare one. Notice how many goodies there are for  Green Bin:

How to eat a prickly pear


  1. I love how that little Prickly Pear took me on this marvelous journey through Berkeley & Napa and onto Italy! I feel like I just had a mini vacation! Wonderful photo of you in front of the amphitheater!!! As always, thanks for sharing.

  2. I remember seeing them in Morocco, but I can't ever remember eating one. If they're not sweet, I'll pass. And like chestnuts, too much work to get to the insides! I missed more regular posts. Too much napping, I guess.

  3. I couldn't say it any better than Ms. Crawford. Your trafood log covers some ground! Molto grazie.
    Must now get back to my nap...

  4. Great post, I must get to Sicily!!! Here's something distantly related:

  5. What incredible photos!!! Love the picture of you at the Ampitheatre. Those stuffed peppers look delicious ;-) It's official, I need to go to Sicily. That gelato reminds me of my trip to Paris with my Mom. I swear, we had gelato every single day!