The sun barely showed up in Norwich in June of 2009 but when I landed in Sicily towards the end of the month, the sky was unclouded therefore revealing Mr Glorious Sun all day long for everyday of my 2 month stay. The almonds were still green and the fichi d’india (cactus pears or prickly pears) were still small. The olives were merely the size of my fingernails but the barrel of oil was still half-full.
It was my first time to meet my husband’s family. When all the excitement and uproar of meeting the relatives had abated, Franco and I drove to the farm. Driving on the right side of the road somehow gave me a sense of familiarity in an otherwise completely foreign land. The sight of hilly landscape, all ploughed and cultivated filled my eyes excitement. The air against my cheeks was warm and welcoming. I closed my eyes to take a deep breath, ever so thankful to feel at home in this strange country.
Lining the road were prickly pear cacti, their hardened leaves showed evidence of surviving heat year in and year out. Their thorns growing as long as 2 inches gave a warning signal like a porcupine ready to attack its predator. The top leaves bearing the fruits looked like enlarged feet with swollen toes. Gabriella told me the fruits were mouth-watering.
Every day for the next two months I looked forward to tasting those seemingly unsightly prickly fruits and picking almonds. I couldn’t wait! Sometimes we picked green almonds, smashed them between two rocks and snack on the fresh young nuts. They reminded me of young coconuts I used to feast on when I was growing up in Palawan.
The trips to the farm became the highlight of my days especially on Sundays when the children (nephews and nieces) came along. Their high-pitched voices filled the air as they chased the butterflies with rapturous delight. My inner child was awakened begging to be released. Before I knew it I was joining them. It was exactly how I grew up. The field was my playground. My mind transformed into a giant cinema playing my happy childhood. I was in the play, I was watching myself, and I was actually doing it again. My heart swelled with joy.
About a month later my long wait had come to fruition. The sun was getting hotter and the green prickly pears have turned yellow, orange, purple and some remained green. I was so anxious to taste them. We picked the first ripened ones but I didn’t want to keep my expectations high. They didn’t look so appetizing to a first-timer; but when I tasted one my eyes lit up. They were succulent, juicy, exquisite, ambrosial. They made me feel refreshed like immersing in a cool pool after a long walk in the desert.
I wanted more. I walked towards the greenhouse and spotted some purple ones. There was no one in sight. No one to tell me how to pick them. Very carefully I held the thick leaf heavy with succulent fichi d’india between my thumb and index finger while the other hand struggled to pick the fruit. Its pricks were ever ready to defend. I withdrew my hand several times to get rid of the pricks that were planted in my fingers. But I wasn’t going to give up. The pricks were in no match to my determination to taste its fruits one more time. Carefully, slowly, pluck!
With one prickly pear with each hand, I headed back to the shed where everybody was having a siesta. I was beaming with pride. Upon seeing what I held in my hands, my cognata said something and my father-in-law came to my rescue. He told me to lay the fruits down, cut some grass and brushed the pricks off the fruits. I stood there feeling dumb, my face turned red with embarrassment upon realizing how silly of me to pick the fruit that way. I was a chaste virgin at picking fichi d’india but now am a whore!
Soon the almonds got ready too and before long I had a mountain of them all waiting to be shelled. With a hammer in one hand, I smashed them until the shell cracked revealing a brown edible meat resembling the shape of a heart. Three days later, I had finished shelling them all, just in time to take them back with me to England.
It’s summer time again. The scent of almonds and the thought of succulent fichi d’india in Niscemi are beckoning for me.