I can tell your age if you tell me the first thing that comes to mind when I say ‘prickly pear’.
If you think, “Ah, the colourful cactus fruit!” then you were born pre-1975. If you go, “Isn’t that a pinkish liquor or something?” then you were born after 1988. If, on the other hand, what flashes right before your eyes is Malta’s 1980s coat of arms – that one with a huge cactus and lots of prickly pear fruit, the luzzu, the farmer’s fork and the baker’s peel – then you were born some time between 1975 and 1988.
The designer of that coat of arms must have had a Mexico-meets-Marsaxlokk moment by way of inspiration and consequently, we, the 1975 to 1988 generation associate the prickly pear with this archived visual in our memory. That, and the image of its 3D version stone monument in Marsa, which seems to have been tucked away somewhere as I haven’t seen it in ages.
Maybe this childhood nostalgia is the reason why the prickly pear is my summer favourite fruit, right up there with the watermelon. As a child, I remember that in several corners of the streets in Paola, there always used to be farmers sitting outside their vans, with buckets of prickly pears soaked in water.
My mother would make us run home, get a glass bowl and run back with a “please sir, can I have some bajtar tax-xewk?” They’d peel off the prickly skin of the fruit, one by one, until the bowl was full. They did not even wear gloves, which is no mean feat. I once touched a prickly pear and to this day when I think of those furry, invisible but tenacious spines I get an irresistible itch. Back home, my sister and I would beeline for the Italian pink bajtar first, and then proceed to eat them in order of colour: baby pink, then orange, then the green, and the yellow last.
These days I hardly ever see people selling prickly pears in the streets. Instead I see them at supermarkets, ready packed bajtar tax-xewk imported from Sicily. Cactus is still used by farmers as natural agricultural fencing over the rubble walls and when you drive past fields you still see the plant taking over the rubble walls, but, increasingly, the fruit is not being picked up. I don’t blame farmers. Why go through all the hassle, when the market is ungrateful?
Forget the apple. Clearly it’s a prickly pear a day
As a result the bajtar tax-xewk is being left to waste. In Italy, wherever you go in summer you’ll find they serve prickly pears for breakfast, as a delicacy with antipasti, as a sorbet or as an ice-cream flavour. Here, there’s only one use for it – that liqueur which millennials are familiar with, which is okay, I suppose, if you love alcohol with a taste of Calpol.
The great pity is that it’s our great loss. The prickly pear fruit is actually very healthy and we could all do with more of it. Despite its silly, carnivalesque appearance, the fruit is a blend of nutrients, including Vitamin C, Vitamin Bs, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper and fibre.
If we eat three of the fruit a day, our daily requirement of vitamin C would be sorted. The calcium in it helps with the strengthening of bones, which is great for a nation where osteoporosis is the order of the day. And who needs Weetabix when the fibre content of these cacti fruit help move foods along the digestive journey? The levels of fibre in the fruit also lowers the levels of bad cholesterol in the body; and as I well remember in my younger days, it helps when you’re a tad hangover.
These last few years, international nutrition and science journals have gone on and on about the boons of this fruit. The significant levels of potassium, for example, can help lower blood pressure, which is beneficial for the prevention of coronary heart diseases and strokes. It is also full of antioxidants – those little things in food that stop or delay damage to the cells by removing the waste products in our cells and which lower the chances of cancer in people.
And recently a University of Malta-led study has found that chemicals extracted from the prickly pear could hold the key to delaying two of the diseases of ageing: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
I mean, what else do we need to elevate this fruit to manna status? We should really be walking round wearing T-shirts saying “Il-Bajtra hija l-King” and that sort of thing.
Forget the apple. Clearly it’s a prickly pear a day which keeps the doctor away. And we’re so lucky the whole island is dotted with them. All we need is to give the fruit tender loving care so that at the mention of the prickly pear, new generations will go: “Ah, yes, I’ve already taken my daily portion of that colourful healthy fruit!”
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