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Prickly pears, a sweet and thorny issue

Prickly pears, a sweet and thorny issue
(Photo: Frankie Lopez on Unsplash)

Red prickly pears are the heart and soul of the Karoo kitchen.

Ah, the mystery of those jars and bottles on every farm stall shelf. Where do they come from, who makes them, how are they made, and what do you do with them? Chief among them, for me, are the slender bottles filled with mysteriously dark red syrup, a nectar like no other. Prickly pear syrup. And it’s long been my mission to try to make some. 

If prickly pears are green, like the ubiquitous ones we see along the roadsides when driving through the Platteland, why is prickly pear syrup red? To those who are a novice like me, and that probably means almost everyone living in the cities, it seems a sensible question. Until you live in a Karoo town and become friends with just the sort of tannie who makes things like prickly pear syrup and green fig preserve and you have the privilege of seeing her make these things and more in the cauldron that is her kitchen. And it’s a window on another world. 

The beautiful interior of a prickly pear before being cooked. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

My friend Heyla Meyer’s house has turned into a domestic factory over the past couple of years. What started as a hobby has become her livelihood. Pots boil furiously on various gas stoves and hobs in her kitchen. On the endless dining room table there is no room for anything but serried rows of bottles with labels on them with the legend, Sense of the Karoo. Depending on the season, they may be filled with orange marmalade or red fig jam, quince jelly or chunks of makataan in syrup. This week, everything was about the prickly pears with their vivid red interiors with which Heyla was making prickly pear syrup. 

Novice that I am, when I was first given a basket of green prickly pears three years ago, I announced to all and sundry that I was going to make prickly pear syrup with them. This was met with the sort of indulgent faces that school teachers have when little Johnny says with a chocolate covered face that he hasn’t been anywhere near those chocolates. No no no, you use the red prickly pears for that, I was informed politely, while I knew that phrases such as “bladdie townie” were being thought, if not spoken. 

But to get hold of some? Now that’s not easy. Two summers went by, with green prickly pears in abundance, but I had not even laid an eye on a red one. Then, this week, my friend Sandra Antrobus tapped me on the shoulder. Tannie Heyla is making prickly pear syrup now, right now, she said, you should go and talk to her. I was on the WhatsApp to Heyla within minutes, and after a short chat she said that yes, she could spare a few, come on over. Or “make a turn”, as we say in the Karoo. 

A red prickly pear before being scrubbed. (Photo: dfespi on Pixabay)

Leading me around the house to the massive back garden, a scene of feverish activity unfolded. Two men wearing gloves were bent over buckets scrubbing the thorns off fat red prickly pears. Nearby were three huge zinc baths each filled with the scrubbed and cleaned pears; mountains of them. From the kitchen door came the sounds of bubbling pots. Heyla grabbed a big supermarket bag and started putting prickly pears in it for me. She got to 16 before she stopped. This is her business, and she cannot just give masses of them away just because there’s a food writer in town who wants to learn how to do everything that comes out of the old Karoo traditions. “That will make you one bottle,” she told me apologetically. It’s bubbling on the stove in my kitchen now, as I write this. There’s a piece of ginger in it, so much sugar, and a bit of lemon juice. That’s all. The rest is the pure juice of the prickly pears. Not a drop of water comes into play, other than to rinse the pears before you start the process. 

They are, of course, aliens, but I defy the lobby that wants all alien vegetation eradicated to explain how they are going to remove it from every square metre of land throughout South Africa. And it has become such a part of what we see and even what we eat that there really is no point. Many things that came from afar become a part of what and who we are in the great melting pot that is life and living. 

A scrubbed and thorn-free prickly pear. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Red and green prickly pears, once they have been peeled, and after you have got rid of those troublesome thorns, can be used just as they are. I have used green prickly pear flesh to make a sorbet (you have to sieve the syrup once made to get rid of the many tiny pips). You can slice the flesh of the red or green ones into a salsa with other cool ingredients. They can become part of a smoothie or eaten with your cereal and yoghurt. The red cactus flesh in particular goes well with citrus, whether orange, lemon or lime; consider it for an ingredient of a cold salmon dish or ceviche. Chop it up with cucumber, spring onions, bell peppers and chilli for a salsa with a hint of sassy fruit. Here’s a cool idea: freeze some prickly pear syrup for the rest of the year and use it to glaze your Christmas turkey next time around. 

But there’s no need to make your own, really. What you need is a farm stall, where you’ll find jars and bottles of the delicious red stuff under many labels, including Heyla’s Sense of the Karoo. The batch on her dining room table this week amounted to 250 and there were still 700 bottles to go, for a big order headed for Namibia. 

Or, if you must make it yourself, you’ll have to find one of those rare people who have the inside track on how to get hold of basketsful of red prickly pears, and have a go at making your own syrup with them. Once you’ve succeeded and run the gamut of cool things to make with it (an ingredient in a cocktail such as a Karoo Tequila sunrise, a glaze for pork or chicken, a sauce to pour over ice cream, or even the ice cream itself), move on to other secrets of the kitchens of the Platteland, such as green fig preserve. That’s my next mission. It will come. 

Ingredients

16 red prickly pears 

2.5 kg white sugar or the equivalent quantity once you have boiled the prickly pears 

A thumb of peeled fresh ginger 

Juice of 1 lemon 

Method

Testing the syrup. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Rinse the pears. Cut off the ends and quarter or halve them depending on their size. 

Put them in a big heavy pot and put it on the heat. No water, please note. Boil until they have released all their juices, about 20 minutes. You do not add any water at any stage of the cooking. 

Cool to room temperature and put them through a food processor in batches, returning the pulped matter to the pot. 

Add the equivalent quantity of sugar, bring to the boil and boil for one and a half hours or until it has a thick but pourable consistency, like thin jam, and the gritty “sugariness” has cooked away. While it is still warm, strain it through a sieve, working it through with a wooden spoon, to get rid of the pips. This takes a bit of effort. 

Fish the knob of ginger out when you spot it. It will have turned bright red. 

Let it cool down to room temperature before bottling. Pour the syrup into sterilised jars (or one bottle if indeed that’s how much this recipe makes), seal and store it in the refrigerator. DM/TGIFood

Sense of the Karoo: 082 347 3832

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

SUBSCRIBE to TGIFood here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.

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