27 July 2010

Mumbo Chumbo

The prickly-pear cactus, or chumbera, grows profusely in and around Alcalá.  It is used for hedges, being fast-growing, hardy and totally livestock-proof, and sprouts along the side of the roads like piles of disorganised green plates growing randomly out of each other.  We have a big tangle of it on the hill behind our house, where it provides refuge and food for countless small birds. The fruits are known as higos chumbos, or more commonly, just chumbos.  Higo means fig, as when they were first bought to Spain from  the Americas - possibly by Columbus himself - people confused them with the Indian fig.  They rapidly spread across southern Europe and North Africa and were later introduced to Australia and South Africa.

In the Americas and in the Canary Islands, the red dye cochineal is made from a scale insect that is a parasite of the prickly pear.  In its native Mexico the fruit has been used for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche, and in Malta it is used to make a pink herbal liqueur called Bajtra.  On St Helena, they distil it to make Tungi Spirit.  In Alcalá, however, they just eat it.

"Now when you pick a pawpaw, Or a prickly pear
And you prick a raw paw, next time beware
Don't pick the prickly pear by the paw
When you pick a pear, try to use the claw!"

Good advice there from Balou the Bear in the Jungle Book movie. They can attack in two ways; the long sharp smooth spikes, and small hairlike spines called glochids which can penetrate skin and cause sores round the mouth if the fruit is eaten without being cleaned properly. One way of getting rid of the glochids is to rotate the fruit in a flame.

The fruits can be green, yellow, orange or purply-red.  In Alcalá they are pale green, but this doesn´t mean they aren´t ripe.  They ripen in late July, when people harvest them using long poles with clips on the end to avoid the lethal thorns.  They are then peeled and cleaned, and sold in the local shops or on the street.  They are pleasant enough to eat but nothing to get excited about.  Their main attraction for the locals is their supposed medicinal qualities; legend has it they can cure anything from diabetes to hangovers, but there is no reliable evidence for this.

A possibly apocryphal story of which the chumbo is a key protagonist concerns a family who moved from Alcalá to Hawaii in 1911 to work in the sugar cane plantations.  Although they were relatively well paid, the father, José Soto, eventually became homesick for his native town.  They couldn´t afford the passage, but one day he noticed that his daughter had dyed her lips red with chumbo juice.  He started surreptitiously eating large quantities of them until his urine had turned bright red. After a few weeks with no change in his condition his employers feared that he was suffering from an incurable and possibly contagious illness, and agreed to release him from his contract and repatriate his family.  Miraculously, as soon as he had the travel papers in his pocket, his urine returned to normal ...

1 comment:

Ian said...

I have a story about the prickly pear, but due to its high embarrassment factor I will only tell it to you personally (in fact I think I did, a very long time ago!)