From Mexico to Sicily: prickly pears and their thousand uses
A plant from the New World that found the right conditions to proliferate and has become a property-rich icon of the Mediterranean island
“All prickly pears were of heavenly stone and when you met a living soul he was a boy who came or went, on the road, to reap the fruits crowned with thorns that grew like coral on the stone” said Elio Vittorini in Conversation in Sicily. From Mexico, which depicts it on the national flag, the prickly pear has also reached the slopes of Etna, becoming an icon of the island’s landscape. You can find it everywhere, from the countryside, to the roadsides, even on the roofs of houses. A plant that we could almost define resilient for its ability to grow and develop despite the aridity of the place.
CUISINE. Recognized as a PDO product, Sicilian prickly pear dyes the landscape with its colours, from the yellow of sulfarina to red and white of muscaredda, you can find these fruits during summer. Moreover, there are second-blooming kinds called bastardoni or scuzzulati. It is said that the latter were discovered thanks to a farmer who cut the flowers from his neighbor’s plant so that it would no longer produce fruits, but he ended up mocked because after some time it produced the scuzzulati, which were even bigger. In addition to these fruits with an unmistakable flavour, from which are obtained specialties such as mustard, dried flowers are used in infusion since the past to relieve the pain of kidney colic, but also the cladodes (called also ʻshovelsʼ), which from forage for animals, have also reached our tables. Once deprived of their thorns cladodes can be tasted in salads along with corns and tomatoes or as a fried cutlet. Consider that there is also the parmigiana made with prickly pear cladodes, a specialty of the island of Ponza recognized since last February among the traditional Italian food products. A dish conceived during the war when, due to lack of supplies from the mainland, people used the young cladodes which, once peeled, were boiled and then enriched with sauce and grated cheese.
DESIGN OBJECTS. In addition to the gastronomic and cosmetic sectors (the gel extracted from the cladodes is mainly used for products to be applied to the skin), Opuntia ficus-indica has also found its place in design creations. The Sikalindi project by the Rossetti family, furniture makers for two generations, was born in Salento: they use the woody fibre of prickly pear to cover furniture objects which are always different from each other according to the unique designs created by the grains. Instead, Renato Belluccia from Gela conceived the Sciàtu Lamp, that is, hand-made lamps with the dead prickly pear cladodes, that gives new breath (sciàtu in Sicilian dialect) to this biodegradable matter.
ECO-FRIENDLY FASHION. The intuition of Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cazárez, two young Mexicans from Guadalajara, lead them to create the brand Desserto, that uses the scrap of prickly pear to make a leather-like fabric to be used, for example, for bags and belts. It’s an alternative that has a positive impact on the environment as value added. Moreover, Cristiano Ferilli from Puglia has created a line of sunglasses (Ferilli eyewear) using cladodes fibre and olive wood for eyeglass frames that recall, through their characteristics, the places from which they take their names, such as Otranto and Porto Miggiano. Also in Sicily, in Assoro (in the province of Enna), the designer Graziana Giunta has realized in her Atelier Manituana the line of Siku jewels made with dried prickly pear fibres that are then cleaned, cut, painted with non-toxic colours and finally assembled. That is, recycling and eco-sustainability to give new life to what from waste becomes a way of wearing a piece of Sicily.
Translated by Daniela Marsala