Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Prickly Pear & Cactus Figs

The surprise I felt at discovering large numbers of wild cacti growing near Napier was akin to finding a pair of knickers in one's car glovebox. Questions sprang immediately to mind: how did they get there? How long have they been there? Will I get a rash if I touch them?

On the face of it, Hawke's Bay wouldn't seem like the kind of place to expect to find cacti. It can however get quite dry, and the plants do seem quite localised, growing in abundance near the beach at Bayview, a small coastal village ten minutes north of Napier. Upon paying a visit, they made for quite an impressive sight. What particularly interested me was the fact that they seemed to be covered in what looked like fruit.

Before we go any further, some background: what are cacti? Cacti (the plural for cactus) are members of the succulent family, Cactacaea. They are very hardy and well suited to growing in hot, dry environments, constructured as they are to maximise water conservation. The plants growing in Bayview are known as prickly pear or paddle cactus, which while being native to Mexico, are to be found growing all over the world. The stands of cacti were everywhere - the plants themselves were tall (between 8'-10'), large and to my eyes, quite alien and forbidding. In one regard, it was almost like walking onto the set of a western; I wouldn't have been the slightest bit surprised to have stumbled across John Wayne having a wee behind one before mounting his horse and trotting off into yonder desert.

As one of its name's suggests, the plant comprises a paddle-like structure, which can be peeled and cooked, tasting quite tender when young. The paddle is covered in spikes and also glochids, fine hair-like spines which detach and imbed themselves in the skin of those handling it, causing profound irritation. The fruit of the cactus are known as cactus figs, cactus fruit or Indian figs. As you can see from the photos, they too are covered in glochids, gloves being a must when handling them. The fruit is ready to harvest by early autumn, having turned an intense orangey-red colour.

I gathered some of the apple-sized fruit, not entirely sure what to do with them. Forewarned about the lethality of their spines, I had thick rubber gloves on and popped the fruit into a thick rubbish bag. Be aware that if you ever come across them, the spines may lodge in clothing, with the accompanying possibility of being visited at some later date by the wee sharp blighters.

Once home, I tipped the fruit into the laundry tub and turned the tap on (the rubbish bag got biffed) and meticulously buffed the surface of the fruit with my gloves in an attempt to remove the spines; they came off easily enough and the running water carried them away down the drain. After checking to see that they'd all gone, it was time to take a look inside.

To prep, cut off both ends and peel off the remainder of the skin, running your peeler down the length of the fruit. The interior looks vaguely Tamarillo-like. The flesh was a bright orange.

The seeds are small but rock hard - don't attempt to bite them unless you're in a desperate hurry to check out the decor of your dentist's waiting room.

The taste was very pleasant; sweet and melon-like, with a texture similar to kiwifruit.

After having a quick think, gelato seemed the logical way to go. This also gave me an opportunity to try a cornflour (cornstarch) based ice cream recipe from my copy of The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz. Cornflour is used to thicken the gelato base rather than egg yolks, a good practice particularly when using subtle flavours, which may not be so prominent in the presence of fat.

Cactus Fruit Gelato
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons corn flour
  • 200 g cactus fruit pulp
  • a few drops of lemon juice
Prep cactus fruit as I've detailed above. Weigh, then place in a bowl and mash with a fork.

Pass mashed fruit through a sieve (using a spatula) to remove the seeds.

Fruit pulp!

Using a wooden spoon, make a slurry by mixing a 1/4 cup of the milk with the cornflour; combine until the cornflour is dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Gently heat the rest of the milk in a pot with the sugar. Just as it's about to boil, stir in the slurry quite vigorously and then gently simmer for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Taste to see that it's cooked out - if it's the slightest bit floury, continue cooking.

Once done, remove from the heat, scrape into a bowl, and chill in the fridge overnight. The next day, whisk in the pulp and a few drops of the lemon juice until smooth. Pour into your ice cream maker and process according to its instructions.

Voila - cactus fruit gelato! As nice as it was, I think the flavour would quite easily stand up to a traditional egg yolks 'n' all gelato recipe. This however, tasted quite splendid. Intense colour too, as you can see.

A huge thank you to Anna who told me all about the cactus and their fruit (she lives just down the road from them). Anna gathered some to make pulp for use in the cactus fruit margarita she introduced onto the cocktail menu at work - super clever!


Nigel Olsen said...

Aaargh! That last shot is just another photo of the pulp - I can't find the photo of the gelato. I'm sure you'd rather see the shot, but you'll have to settle for a description until I can find it - the gelato was pale orange in colour. Sorry...

Anonymous said...

Great to have you and your humour back on line! I never realised the cactus pears would taste good. There is a big plant in a neigbours garden which might get a dawn raid this week.

Mary said...

Great find! We drove through there on our 05 winery tour and when we spied these, we stopped roadside for a snack!

The gelato sounds delicious Nigel!

Nigel Olsen said...

PP - Hello! I'm busy/lazy/swamped/overwhelmed. You really should try them, they're good - chill them, too.

Mary - Hello, mum! Hope the family's well :) It's a shame seeing all that fruit going to waste, but we snaffled quite a few.