I have always been a lover of fresh fruit. I can’t resist the soft, sweet varieties: bananas, grapes, peaches, plums, kiwis and apricots. In my own little garden back home I grow apples, strawberries, gooseberries, black currents, rhubarb and tomatoes, and with a little help from my freezer, they never go out of season – what a wonderful invention those freezers are, managing to thwart nature’s rhythms, and serve up the goodies all the year round.
When we were children, I can’t recall fresh fruit being a feature of our table, or any of our neighbour’s tables either. Perhaps in those days the health benefit of fruit wasn’t known or appreciated, or maybe it was the scarcity of funds that forced housewives to stick to the bare essentials, and fruit being a luxury, was only purchased for special occasions. But we did have plenty of one particular fruit when it was in season, and that was rhubarb. My mother was an expert at growing it, and because she had a knack of forcing it up with an abundance of well rotted farmyard manure, she produced a constant supply of juicy, organic rhubarb, bigger and earlier than anyone else. Of course, it was so bitter, that you couldn’t eat it raw, but we had it in stews, in pies, and in giant tarts, smothered with sugar, and bubbling over with mouth-watering goodness. I can still taste my mother’s rhubarb tarts to this day, and whenever I do, it reminds me of all the miracles these genius mothers performed, with big families to feed, and little or nothing with which to do it.
Malta is an absolute treasure trove of all kinds of succulent fresh fruit. At almost every corner I find a lorry laden with masses of every variety under the sun, and for anyone to neglect their five-a-day here, it is certainly their own fault, and I, for one, gorge myself on it, and throughout every day, I feel the health benefit of it.
I must mention another fruit that in late summer and autumn, flourishes all over Ireland – the ‘Blackberry’ – and back in the days of severe austerity and poverty, when we were almost eating grass, it was a God-send to families like ours. The little blackberries smothered the hedgerows with juicy sweetness, and growing wild and free, provided food and welcome funds for many hard-pressed families. We picked buckets of them every year, sold them to the fruit factory for jam, earning vital shillings, and keeping us out of harm’s way during the long school holidays. One of my vivid memories is the sight of barrels of blackberries being taken to the factory for processing, congealed, decomposing, with a strong stench, and a layer of mould on top. It gave off such a gassy odour that if you didn’t know, you would have said it was more suitable for making aviation fuel than jam. That probably explains why those swanky pots of jam on the supermarket shelves never tempted me, I know too much about the ingredients.
I didn’t find any blackberries in Malta, but I did find a fruit that also grows wild, and having seen it gracing the shelves of many ‘Fruit and Veg’ shops, at prime prices, I was surprised to find it growing by the roadside, freely available to pick and enjoy. I’m referring to the ‘Prickly Pear’ a seedy, juicy fruit, that I have recently learned, has been part of the stable diet of Mediterranean countries for thousands of years. It is the fruit of the ‘Cactus,’ and I suppose that’s why it only grows in hot climates, and why, until I set foot in Malta, I had never seen it before in my life.
I was out walking one day, and above St. Paul’s Bay I was passing a fairly large area covered with cactuses laden with eye-catching, orange-red pairs. Feeling a bit peckish, I decided to have a little feast. Sure why not? They were wild and free, and if they’re so good for the Maltese, they can’t be too bad for an Irishman either. I waded in to get the biggest and best of the crop, and having landed my first catch, cupped and cuddled it lovingly in my soft, under-worked hands. Suddenly I realised something serious was happening to me, and what I was flirting with, was not a little harmless fruit, but a lethal weapon capable of inflicting torture to unsuspecting fools like myself.
What I didn’t know – I do now – was that on the skin of the pair, are millions of sharp spines or needles, so thin that they are invisible, but they enter your tissue, remain there for days, driving you stone mad with pain and suffering. I never liked getting a thorn in my hand, and whenever I did, I immediately summoned the sowing needle, and out it had to come. Imagine how I felt when, through a harmless little misadventure, I ended up with a million prickly pear needles lodged under the skin of both palms of my hands. I’ll say no more – it only brings the pain back – but in future I’ll banish all memories of Malta’s ‘Prickly Pears,’ and stick with my little humble and harmless Irish blackberry.
From ‘It’s a Long Way to Malta’ (An Irishman’s Gem in the Med)
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