Although Lanzarote has no truly indigenous cacti, there is one species of cactus that grows here and on the other Canaries which it would be hard to imagine the island without: Opuntia ficus-indica. This plant is a characteristic feature of the scenery of the north of Lanzarote, especially around the little village of Mala. It has a number of common names, including Barbary fig, Indian fig, cactus pear and, of course, prickly pear. Not only is it attractively exotic to look at, especially when the bright orangey-red flowers emerge, but it also has some extremely valuable characteristics that people have been exploiting for centuries.
On Lanzarote in the mid-19th century people first began to raise the cochineal insect on the plant's fleshy "ears" (or pads - which are in fact its shoots). The bug was used in the manufacture of the dark red dye carmine. The dye, which today bears the modern if somewhat unsexy name E120, is used as a food dye in lipsticks, sweets and the well-known drink, Campari.
For the farmers of Lanzarote it's hardly worth producing carmine in this way any more, as it has largely been replaced by a synthetic dye which is far cheaper to make. Nowadays real carmine is only made on Lanzarote for demonstration purposes, and for better or worse, the cochineal farmers have had to seek out other sources of income.
Not that this would have been a source of too much regret – it was extremely hard labour in the prickly pear fields. Under the blazing sun, men and women would scrape the insects off the cacti, all the while taking care to avoid the barbed spines. This conveniently brings us to the very unpleasant characteristic of these members of the Crassulaceae, or orpine family of succulents. The prickly pear not only has thousands of spines with which to defend itself against its enemies, it is also armed with so-called glochids: tiny bristles located around the spines, which themselves are equipped with nasty barbs.
Yet for all its defences, the prickly pear (known on Lanzarote as Tunera) is unable to fend off the attacks perpetrated by its human predator, whose fondness for the species matches that of the cochineal insect. The plant's fruit tastes excellent when eaten raw, and can also be made into a jam, a liqueur (called Coloncho on Lanzarote), a juice, or even turned into wine. The flowers can be eaten, or drunk as a tea, and the fleshy young fruits are considered to be a delicacy in Mexico, where they feature in hundreds of recipes.
But the best is yet to come: Apart from its spines, everything about the cactus pear is completely healthy. In Mexico it has long been used for its healing properties, for example - hardly surprising -
as it is high in vitamin C, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, silicon and beta-carotene, and contains a number of amino acids, vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and healthy resins, tannins and pectin.
The "nopal" or "nopalnocheztli", as it known by the Mexican Indians, is believed to cleanse the blood and purge the intestinal tract. It is said to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, have a beneficial effect on gastric and intestinal disorders, be effective against prostate enlargement and bladder weakness, and be good for the coronary arteries.
Opuntia is used in homeopathy in cases of diarrhoea with vomiting, and for priapism (a condition which causes a persistent unwanted erection). The leaves can be made into poultices to relieve painful swellings and ulcers caused by sexually transmitted diseases. Nopal is also used to help diabetics and in cases of metabolic disorders like obesity, as it also helps people to lose weight, by restricting the absorption of glucose in the intestine.
At a time of growing concern about an obese population this is a real gold mine as far as the manufacturers of dietary supplements are concerned. It's no great surprise that the pharmacy shelves are stacked with potions, powders and pills associated with the nopal cactus. There is very little actual proof of its effect, but as we know, faith can move mountains, which doubtless helps the manufacturers of these powders shift their products.
Anyone who lives on Lanzarote can test the prickly pear's healing properties for themselves, free of charge and on their own doorstep. There is one proven fact: the plant has no side effects, as long as you don't prick yourself on one of its spines!
The fruit fall to the ground here, where they generally lie unused: it's just a case of collecting them up. The same goes for the blooms, which emerge in spring and which can be used either fresh or dried to make a healthy and tasty opuntia flower tea The beta-Sitosterol it contains is good for mum's bladder and dad's virility!
In Baja California, where opuntia and other cacti grow freely in the countryside, the local people still eat the opuntia flowers. Some Indian tribes believe that they increase the body's defences and male virility. The flowers, which only open for one to two days, have a mystical significance which probably goes right back to the time of the Aztecs.
Not only the fruit and flowers of the plant are edible, though. In the spring and early summer the young shoots, or pads, can also be picked, and they can be prepared in a whole variety of ways. They should be no more than 10 to 15 centimetres in length, and can simply be cut off where they meet the plant. Remember to wear gloves, though! Then, back at home, use an asparagus peeler to remove the spines and glochids. This is best done under running water. When doing this it's still advisable not to touch the spiny "ears" with bare hands.
We've tried out a few recipes for you. Perhaps you can think of some others? Why not try them out for yourself!
The fruit of the prickly pear can be enjoyed fresh. Take great care when removing the fruits from the plant: you must wear gloves! The locals roll the fruit in sand to remove the small spines, but you can also scrape them off with a knife. Then you can either cut the fruit open like a kiwi and spoon out the contents, or peel it.
The fruit can be cut into slices and marinated in a sauce made from lemon juice, vanilla sugar and amaretto, or you can add it to a fruit salad flavoured with lemon juice and sugar and topped off with vanilla ice cream.
The fruit can also be pressed through a sieve to separate the seeds from the flesh. This pulp can then be flavoured with honey and cinnamon and is delicious served with cream puddings and other desserts or fruit flans.
The pureed fruit of the prickly pear is also excellent as a savoury accompaniment, and can be served as a chutney to go nicely with white fish or white meats.
Prickly pear sorbet
Ingredients (makes approx. 500 ml sorbet)
500 g prickly pears, peeled and roughly chopped
250 g sugar 250 ml water 1 tsp Grand Marnier
Puree the flesh of the fruit in a blender or food processor. Pass the pulp through a sieve into a bowl. Boil the sugar and water in a small saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Allow the syrup to cool. Stir the sugar syrup and the Grand Marnier into the fruit pulp and freeze in an ice cream maker, following the manufacturer's instructions. Alternatively, pour the mixture into a shallow bowl and place in the freezer until it begins to set. Remove the bowl and aerate the mixture by stirring with a fork, then return the sorbet to the freezer. Repeat this process several times until the sorbet has the correct consistency. Note: For this flavoursome sorbet, which can be served as an entrée between courses or as a dessert, it is best to use fruit which is soft, but not overripe.
Chicken soup with nopales
Ingredients (serves 6)
8 fresh young nopal pads
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 onion, diced
5 rashers of bacon, diced
250 g feta cheese or Manchego
3 hot chillies
3 small stewing hens
2 celery sticks
2 garlic cloves
2 litres water
1 tbsp chicken consommé
Remove the spines from the nopal, wash and cut into strips. Simmer for 5 minutes, drain and then rinse in cold water. Cut the chicken into rough pieces and place in a pan together with the carrot, the roughly chopped celery, the garlic and the chicken consommé. Boil in the water until tender. Remove the chicken pieces and drain the soup through a fine sieve into a pan. Cut the chicken portions into smaller pieces. Fry the bacon cubes until they are a golden brown colour. Remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Sweat off the diced onion in the bacon fat until it is translucent and then remove from the pan.
Now add the nopal strips, the diced bacon, the onion and the chicken pieces to the sieved stock. Bring to the boil briefly. Prior to serving place the cheese pieces into soup dishes and pour the chicken soup over them and sprinkle on a little oregano.
Ensalada de Nopalitos - Prickly pear salad
450g fresh young prickly pear pads, approx. 15 to 20 cm long
(a jar of Nopal al Natural may be used as a substitute if necessary)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tomatoes, finely diced
1 onion, sliced to form rings
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp apple vinegar
1 squeeze fresh lemon juice
½ tsp sugar
Under running water remove the spines from the fresh cactus. Cut the pads into strips and place in boiling water together with the bicarbonate (which helps the cactus pieces to keep their lovely green colour. If you prefer not to use bicarb you can also use mineral water, which has the same effect).
Reduce the heat slightly and allow to simmer for around 10 minutes. The cactus pieces should still have a little bite.
Strain and rinse well with cold water. Drain. If you are using preserved prickly pear pieces from a jar, these will also need to be washed briefly. Mix the prickly pear strips with the oil and seasoning, the diced tomatoes and the onion rings.
Hint: You can also add diced feta cheese to this salad, and if you like coriander, chop up some of the fresh herb to make a nice garnish.
500 g prickly pears
180 g sugar
Peel the prickly pears, chop them into small pieces and bring to the boil together with the sugar, stirring constantly.
Nopal and pineapple juice health drink
1 fresh young nopal pad, with spines removed
1 slice fresh pineapple, approx. 3 cm thick.
5 sprigs of parsley
Juice of 1 grapefruit
Juice of 1 lemon
1 celery stick
Mix all the ingredients in a blender and drink the unstrained juice on an empty stomach. This healthy cocktail doesn't just taste delicious: it also helps to break down fat, lowers blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and is a diuretic and aids the digestion.
Banana milk with prickly pears
2 prickly pears
1½ l milk
Blend all the ingredients together and top up with cold milk. If you have a powerful blender then you can also add some ice cubes. Makes a refreshing drink.
Opuntia flower tea
Simmer 5-10 fresh or dried flowers (or more, if you prefer) in 1 litre water for 2-5 minutes. Allow to infuse for a little while, then strain. The tea can be drunk either hot or cold. Sweeten to taste. 3 flowers are roughly equivalent to 1 g of powder. The flowers can be crushed using a pestle and mortar or in a mini-blender