Friends and guests who have been to the American southwest or Mexico often notice the proliferation of Prickly Pear cactus around Mount Etna. While it appears endemic to the area, the edible, fruiting cactus is an import. It started to arrive on the island during Aragonese and Spanish rule, at the end of the fifteenth century.
With every ship that arrived in Sicily from the American continent, petals and pads of the cactus were planted and disseminated along the eastern coast of the volcano. The cactus was considered of great advantage to farmers on Etna, as its roots can find easy access through lava, breaking it apart, and assisting in the creation of new soil from previously unarable land.
The Spanish called it Fico d’India (Prickly Pear) for how it appeared to look like a pear with long thorns. Though it wasn’t India that had been discovered, but North and South America, the name stuck.
“What’s funny,” Fabio Costantino tells me. “The Greeks call them Fichi di Sicilia, because they arrived to them from here.” Fabio owns and manages Terra Costantino with his father Dino, in Cda. Blandano. The cactus can be found throughout their property, near Viagrande.
The cactus produces two yields per year. The first, which arrives in the summer, is very light in flavor. A second, arriving in the fall, is more succulent.
“We prefer the fall harvest,” Fabio says. “They have more flavor.”
The small fruit is good to eat, but it can also be used to make a fermented liqueur. In California and Texas, the young pads — Nopales — are harvested, cleaned, and cut into pieces for salads and preparations. Nopal means cactus in Spanish.
Fabio leads me into their old palmento saying, “We also used the sap from the cactus to lubricate the screw that raised and lowered the arm of the press. When the sap dries it becomes sticky. It locked the screw in place, allowing the counterweight (a massive volcanic stone) to draw down on the arm.
Apart from the fruit it produces and its engineering uses, the Spanish also loved the cactus for another reason. It attracted the cocciniglia del carminio, a bug which when crushed creates a fine red powder used for dying textiles.
The color resembles that of the crimson red found in the Aragon and Spanish flags.
Whatever the initial reason for bringing a cactus from America to Europe during the Late Middle Ages, the Fico d’India found a ready home on Etna.
Terra Costantino produces Etna DOC wines from organic vineyards in Cda. Blandano, on Mount Etna’s east slope.