With a huge sigh of relief, September is finally upon us.
August brought us scorching temperatures which caused many parts of our region’s pine forests to burn wildly, and many crops and gardens to suffer. Some members of the plant world, however, are resilient to almost any extreme conditions thrown their way. One locally found (though not native) botanical wonder is the mighty opuntia, or prickly pear, an admirably drought and frost tolerant cactus that lines the dry, rocky verges besides roads and country lanes along the Mediterranean coast. There are some spots in our village, Yanıklar, where you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Mexico, or elsewhere in the Americas, from where this robust genus originates. The historic village of Kayaköy is another great place to go opuntia spotting, where old stone walls provide a picturesque backdrop to these needled, sculptural formations.
There seems to be two commonly found opuntia growing wild around these parts. One has circular blue-green pads (pictured below) and produces a round and plump reddy-purple fruit. The other has more elongated, lighter green pads and its fruit turn from yellow to a light orange in late-August. I have attempted to identify both species on Wikipedia, but I just find myself drooling over beautiful purple or blue pigmented species that I guess I’ll never source in Turkey.
We currently have one opuntia in the garden which two summers ago I transferred from a pot when it had around ten pads, into a large raised bed. After a year in its new home it made over twenty new pads, then this year instead of new pads it presented us with a healthy-sized crop of around a hundred fruits, starting with yellow flowers in May, then developing yellow, or later on orange, fruit throughout August / early-September.
Originally my dreams of having a large, fruit laden opuntia in the garden were purely for decorative pleasure. Once the dream turned to reality, I then realised I’d have to find a use for all the fruit! If you’ve ever eaten a prickly pear before (after the laborious and risky task of peeling them) you’ll know the fruit, although sweet and lightly flavoured, has umpteen seeds inside that are quite hard and not-too-pleasant to attempt to chew through.
An internet search for jam and chutney inspiration led me to a recipe for prickly pear chutney, which on first glance seemed quite simple. I’ve now made two batches and I can confirm it’s the most labour intensive conserve I’ve ever made, but the end product is definitely worth the time dedicated and splinters obtained! As I type, I still have a few splinters in my fingers from my last harvest a week ago! Here’s the process I’ve followed to make this delicate, yet slightly tropical flavoured chutney, which pairs wonderfully with cheese. The flavour is somewhere between pineapple and mango, and I’ve modified it to include a couple of jalapeños for a light kick.
Recipe makes two large jars:
30-34 large prickly pears peeled and chopped
8 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 jalapeños or other hot chilli peppers, cut into fine slices
4cm of fresh ginger
285 grams sugar
300ml white vinegar
2 cinnamon sticks
Pick the fruit using tongues and a sharp knife, then remove the needles. I opted to burn the needles over the cooker flame, then placing them in a colander, to rinse off the needle remains
Peel the fruit by holding the fruit with tongues (in case any needles remain!), and cutting a slice down the fruit. Then peel the outer skin off by getting the knife beneath the very outer corner of the cut you've just made. The fruit should roll out if you get under the skin successfully
Chop the fruit into chunks into a large jam pan. Then simmer the fruit over a medium flame, stirring / mashing to break up the pieces and loosen the seeds
Strain the fruit through a sieve using a ladle or wooden spoon. Only take two spoons of seedy mush at a time, as the less mush you have in the sieve, the easier the straining will be. This is the hardest part! Don’t be surprised if it takes over an hour to separate the juice and flesh from the seeds! Occasionally scrape the bottom of the sieve to collect as much flesh and juice as possible into a large bowl. Once you have extracted all the juice and pulp, its plain sailing
Put the cactus juice & pulp into your jam pan, add all the other ingredients, and boil slowly until reduced. This should take around 1.5 hours. I prefer to take the cinnamon stick out after 30 minutes, as I don’t like too much of an overpowering flavour
Spoon the mixture into sterilised jars, cool, lid, label and fridge
I counted fifty or so fruits remaining on my opuntia today. That's enough for one more large (three jar) batch of chutney, and a few more splinters, before the garden presents us with our next gift of edibles, most likely pomegranates in a few weeks' time. If you have access to prickly pears this year, or next, I hope your cheese board makes a new friend. This chutney really is worth the effort, I wouldn't be gearing up to dedicate another 4+ hours of my life making another batch if I hadn't found a new taste sensation in life! If you've been thinking about introducing an opuntia into your garden, I'd say go for it, they make great border plants, and in a few years time you'll be blessed with your own harvest of prickly pears.