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Emily in Malta: Prickly pear picking

Emily in Malta: Prickly pear picking

What is it with all of the cactus plants growing all over the island with their large, spiked paddles that line almost every road around Malta? If not prickly pear season, you might find yourself wondering why there are so many and what benefits, if any, they have.

The paddles themselves are known in Mexican cuisine as ‘Nopales’ and are medicinal in their own right. They are used in food, juices, jellies and other varieties to treat ailments such as diabetes, cholesterol, liver balance and alcohol detox. They’re also known to help with weight loss and also come with a high number of vitamins such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and vitamin C. I’ve also heard that you can slice right down the centre of the paddle and use the gel to help prevent sweating. At least, that’s what I learnt from Tony Borg, my go-to expert on all things bajtar tax-xewk.

We met Tony of Mellieħa home-made jams and visited his incredible land, where large caves dwell above, natural spring water is offered as a gift from God and where prickly pears, figs, carob and many other fruits grow, in order for him to make his amazing home-made jams. The only resemblance to prickly pear that I’ve ever come across in the United States is prickly pear margherita mix; a bottle of hot pink bar mix that you add tequila and serve.

Then I moved to Malta.

The little hairy beasts are everywhere around the island, even in my own backyard! Until springtime and early summer, you might not known that those simple cactus plants with wide paddles will soon offer yellow flower blossoms, which the bees love to nose dive into and shimmy down to the bottom and play around for weeks to months at a time.

If you are anything like me, you might think that the flowers themselves are the big showcase of these cacti. Then comes August and the flowers turn into prickly pears, which are known locally as bajtar tax-xewk. Once you get up close to the bajtar, you’ll see that they’re full of pins and pricks and touching them in even the most gentle and speedy of ways gets those needles into your fingers, up your arms and into your clothes from the moment contact is made.

For any sane person who has not been picking these lovelies for a lifetime, they need to wear sturdy gloves in order to grab a hold and twist and pull them for free. Tony Borg, however, is the master of pulling bare handed and dropping them into his bucket. He picks one after the next after the next and doesn’t even notice if the pins are in his hands and over his arms and clothes.

For the pears that cannot be reached by hand, he uses a very nifty contraption, a wooden pole with two open cans on each side. He places the pear into the can and twists enough to get the pear to release and come down inside the can, to be dropped into the bucket. When I first started looking for a person who could show me how to pick and cut prickly pears, my local grocer told me that it was a lost art and that only the original farmers around the island still knew how to cut and use the bajtar.

These are the treasures of Malta, do not let them die, ever! These longstanding family traditions not only need to continue to be passed down but also taught to people outside their family lines, so that the tradition is not lost through time and translation. This beautiful fruit is said to be underutilised here and more widely used in an array of different offerings through Italy, for instance. Still in Malta, so many of these incredibly healthy and delicious fruits are used as a wind breaker, and for walls and even used as a fertiliser.

How to cut a prickly pear once its in your bucket:

  • Wear gloves! Unless your name is Tony Borg, do not handle these without sturdy gloves

  • Do not wash them. The water and rain change the texture and dynamic of the prickly pears

  • Place the pear flat on the cutting board (again, unless you are Tony, because he uses those bare hands to rip right into them and take the skins off). Take a sharp knife and cut the top and bottom of the fruit off

  • Once the top and bottom have been removed, slice a straight line down the pear from top to bottom, in a vertical line. Then, peel the skin back until its fully removed from around the fruit and throw the skin out

When life hands you prickly pears… you turn them into jam

The prickly pears have large seeds in them, however this is no big deal. You can eat them directly as they’re cut as a fresh fruit, you can squeeze the juice out and make drinks with the juice or, like Tony, you can turn them into jam.

Here is something fascinating: when Tony makes the jam, he puts them straight into the pot without peeling them. He says that at the high temperature, the pins actually dissolve. Once they have cooked down and the pins are all gone, he removes them from the pan and peels them.

Tony makes his jam in very small batches by hand; jar by jar to be sold in shops around the country. To find any of Tony’s jams, you can buy them at any local Mr Fruit store, as well as from Tony directly from his little shop, Mellieħa home made jams.

Visit BirdLife for more information. The reserve is open between September and May.