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Prickly Pears: A seasonal treasure that’s worth the sting

Prickly Pears: A seasonal treasure that’s worth the sting
As nature intended. Prickly pears peeled and cooled, the perfect summer snack. Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn

Tolofia. Dhorofia. Turksvy. Foeiye. Ditoro. Toroko. Serogole. Kaktusfeige or Indian Figs. No matter the name, prickly pears present prickly problems as well as delight, and even have a thorny history.

For many, the prickly pear fruit conjures up memories of hot summers on the farm and holidays in the rural Platteland. In the Eastern Cape, where these cacti thrive, prickly pears are especially relished. In fact, I loved them so much that I insisted on my 10th birthday party being prickly pear-themed. My mom had to bake a cactus-shaped cake and all the kids indulged in ice-cold “tolofia”, as we called them.

Many would argue that prickly pears are best eaten like this; plainly. Peeled and chilled to ice-cold crunchiness to be enjoyed after a big lunch at the height of summer. But a good case can be made for turksvystroop or prickly pear syrup – the only derivative product made from this interesting fruit. 

Prickly pear syrup is cooked from the red and pink varieties of the cacti to produce a deep purple reduction. The whole fruits are thrown into massive, halved diesel drums to cook and are strained and reduced over a series of processes. The result is seriously sweet and, admittedly, has very little of the original flavour of the fruit detectable. Still, it’s relished among South Africans, especially those in the Karoo. 

There’s also a specific way to eat the syrup. You’ll need a slice of fresh “winkelbrood”, like Sasko Sam, that’s been slathered with a thick layer of real butter on one side. The butter needs to be at least 2mm thick to act as a barrier or “seal” for your broodjie. Best to do this on a plate, as things could get messy from here… The slice is then turned over so the buttered side of the bread faces down, into the plate. Then, the syrup. This is poured over the bread and allowed to soak into the creases. The butter at the bottom will prevent the syrup from filtering out, while you dig in with a knife and fork. 

We used to have this for breakfast growing up but honestly, it’s more of a dessert than anything else. A shortcut South African version of bread-and-butter pudding, sort of. The syrup is a hit in all desserts, really. I’ve seen it in milkshakes, over waffles and of course as a topping for ice cream. It’s also great in cocktails. Yum.  

A massive prickly pear cactus. Varieties can differ in colour from bright green to pale blue, as seen here. Photo: Wentzel Lombard

As delicious and exotic as they may be, prickly pears can be a nightmare to harvest if you don’t know what you’re doing. Luckily there’s a method to ensure those tiny, near-invisible thorns don’t drive you to madness. The trick is to never EVER let your bare hands get into contact with the prickly pear skin. 

First, during the picking. Prickly pears grow on obscure-looking cacti that are covered in little clusters of microscopic hairs. We say “thorns”, but this isn’t the right word. They’re actually called glochids or glochidia and are more like little bristles or blades that get stuck in your fingers and hands that are impossible to remove because they’re too small to even see.  

Growing up, we used to take empty baked bean tins to scoop the fruits from the cactus flanks. The tins’ sharp edges ensured a clean cut while also providing protection for your hand. The tin is also like a little container into which the fruit falls, before being thrown into a bigger bucket for peeling later. 

Then, the peeling. The art is to remove the thick outer skin without touching the fruit. Using a fork, you stab your prickly pear right in the belly to hold the fruit in place. Then, with a sharp knife, cut off the crown and tail end to expose the pitted inners at both ends. Next, you slice through the thick skin from top to bottom, making sure not to damage the fruit inside. The skin can now be peeled off around the fruit, exposing the juicy inners. 

How to peel. First, you cut off the crown and tail-end, and then split open and peel away the skin to reveal the fruit. Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn

Different families have different methods to keep the thorns at bay. But there is one ultimate rule: You can never pick prickly pears when the wind is blowing. Those pesky thorns are so small that even a light breeze can upset them, and then they’re everywhere.

The late Hans Masoes, an old gentleman from the Karoo with the best knowledge of the veld I’ve ever known, used to tell of a woman who lost her sight after she went picking in the wind. “The hairs flew into her eyes and she ended up scratching them out,” he told us as kids. We were petrified. 

Hans lived in the veld and could survive for months on end, eating and drinking what he found in nature. Every season, he directed us to the sweetest spot of prickly pears on the farm. We’d go in masses, picking bucket-loads of prickly pears for everyone on the farm to devour over the next couple of weeks. 

Pricklies are full of pips that are safe to be swallowed whole. Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn

The seasonal excitement over this peculiar fruit brought on a delicate problem, however… deprived of their delight for a year, everyone on the farm overindulged during those first few days. Tummies would be upset at first, and then, not. Not at all. 

One fateful year, our farm’s collective metabolism ground to a screeching halt, clogged up by those pesky prickly pear pips. After a week of hell, Epsom salts and the use of a manual bicycle pump (best not to ask questions…) provided the needed relief. Alas, at least on Waterval Farm, prickly pear season these days is enjoyed with a little more restraint. 

Prickly pears, like Easter Eggs, are a seasonal spectacle in SA. They’re one of the few fruits that have remained purely seasonal, despite being relatively easy to grow. 

Prickly pears self-propagate by rooting their leaves into the ground and can grow new plants within months. Photo: Wentzel Lombard

Jackie Jordaan, farmer’s wife and entrepreneur from Cradock, had a thriving prickly pear business in the 1990s. She says they had to harvest like hell every year between February and April. 

“We had a big machine with a rotating barrel and large bristles to remove the thorns. But it had an open top and when a sudden gust of wind blew in, the thorns were everywhere. 

“On our ears, legs, hands. Everywhere. At the end of each day, we used sticky tape to try to pluck them out,” Jackie says. “The thorns eventually drove us close to insanity and we decided to stop the madness,” she recalls. 

Ironically, prickly pears are super easy to grow. In fact, being an alien species in SA, they’re actually a little difficult to destroy. So, the best way to grow them is just to leave them be. The moment you attempt any form of nurture, you end up with an array of issues. Too much water and the cochineal is given a breeding ground to thrive. Plant them in rows and, a few months later, all your walkways will be overgrown. Prickly pears self-propagate by rooting their leaves into the ground and growing new plants within months. 

Despite their countrywide appeal, prickly pears had a rather prickly inception in SA. The cactus was brought to South Africa from the Americas in the mid-1700s to be used as a living fence to separate and “protect” colonists from locals. The plan failed miserably and ironically when the fruits from the pricklies provided a source of food and income to local entrepreneurs.

Nowadays, it’s an especially loved fruit that encapsulates many food memories for South Africans. And in modern times, the prickly pear has come to represent the qualities we cherish as South Africans – resilience, ingenuity and the ability to rise again even after being knocked down. DM

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