When traveling down almost any country lane around the islands it is often hard to miss the ever abundant cacti that flow over the Ħajt tas-Sejjieħ (rubble wall / dry stone wall) lining the roads. These flat cacti are the source of one of Malta’s more unusual products and national obsessions … the prickly pear.
An Introduction To The Prickly Pear Fruit In Malta
Prickly pears are known as ‘Bajtar tax-xewk’ (Opuntia ficus-indica or Indian Fig) grow with large flat, rounded cladodes (also called platyclades) which often become magnificently tangled and twisted sculpture-like objects, were it not for farmers lopping off bits from time to time it might well take over. In the past farmers would use it as a boundary between fields; it is certainly as the most effective deterrent to both the intruder and wandering livestock, the spines are after all quite sharp. Like all true cactus species, prickly pears are native to the Western hemisphere. Prickly pear species are found in abundance in Mexico, the western United States in the arid regions in the Northwest and throughout the mid and lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains such as in Colorado.
Throughout the heights of summer, the Prickly pear reigns supreme in Malta’s landscape. The small fruit gradually emerges throughout the year attached to the end of the leaves and are ripe when they turn into any variety of bright colors. One will find shops and vans that sell them, kindly they remove the spines, which is certainly a relief. However, some brave souls may choose to pick and peel them for themselves, though this is best left to hardy folk whose hands seem glorious immune to the little spines. When peeled the color inside is a positively diverse rainbow of options with greens yellows, reds, and purples being among the more common.
While abundant, Malta does not seem to make a great deal of use from its Prickly pear harvest. In Sicily, they are adventurously turned into a plethora of delectable treats including candies, granitas, sorbets, ice creams and jellies as well as serving it up as dessert in restaurants. Here it is usually served one of two ways, either raw, where it has flavors similar to watermelon, honeydew melon, strawberries, and figs, or as the traditional liqueur Bajtra. The procedure required to make the liqueur Bajtra begins with the extractions of the juices, and while the process is complicated and does require some effort, the fermentation process is similar to that of winemaking. When completed it appears as a baby pink liquid, should be served ice cold and lends itself dutifully as a delightful after dinner drink.
It is widely believed that prickly pears have medicinal properties. Many chemical compounds have been extracted from it which have been found to be useful against several conditions especially inflammations. In Malta, it was used against stomach aches, bone pain, inflammations, and insect stings.
Interestingly, a species of scale insect thrives on the prickly pear. This insect produces carmic acid which is used to make cochineal, a red dye used in red food coloring and cosmetics. The dye was used by the Aztec and Mayans in Oaxaca, Mexico, and exported to Europe, today it is still used as the coloring agent for all red Smarties.
So prolific is its place within Maltese culture that between 1975 and 1988 Malta’s coat of arms featured a prickly pear plant, along with a traditional Dgħajsa and other symbols. We do hope you get the opportunity to enjoy them while you are on the islands.