Saturday, 10 October 2009

The 'Turkit' and its Prickley pears

Something to look forward to, oh my faithful reader. Over the coming months I will be picking a fruit or a vegetable, earlier unknown or undiscovered to me, from my local Turkish/Greek green grocer in Turnpike Lane, North London; bring it home, dissect it, look at it, cook it, probably eat it, and then, hopefully, describe it to you. I am preparing for lots of delights, surprises and god-knows-what-that-is's. I will need your help, your expertise and, on occasion, your sympathy.

The shop in question is a lively, loud, cramped and hectic shop 3 minutes walk from our house. The shop is essentially a green grocer, a glorious collection of fruit and veg, cheeses, cans of the pickled and marinated, breads, olives and spices. Being primarily a source of Mediterranean goodies, it has always been clever in stocking up on produce that would attract other local communities, namely Bangladeshi, Indian and even Polish - hence to me it is a prime example of ingenious business know-how, fuelled by migrant wit and local necessity. There are many other shops on the street that sell similar produce, but this one is the biggest, the noisiest, and, on the surface of it, the most successful.

The shop is owned by a Turkish family, which means you learn people's faces quite quickly here (even if the urban realities prevent you from stopping to say a proper hello to the shop keepers and exchange more than the required politenesses - all excuses of course) and know what service to expect, or not, from a particular member. All are involved - cousins, parents, grandparents and aunties are here at one time or another; and so you see teenage children starting out in the shop to bulk up their pocket money, then young women getting married, raising their children whilst doing short hours behind the till, men of the family doing their manly things of carrying boxes and playing in security guards, and sometimes you spot a photograph on a wall, with a black ribbon across it, a granddad in black-and-white, who has spent most of his life surrounded by this bounty and you saw laying out bunches of mint in neat rows just the other day*..

We call the shop 'Turkit'. Our domestic legend has it that the original name of the shop - Turkish International - slowly metamorphosed into turk. international, then turk. in, and the turkit. In spite of living in the proximity to the shop for five years, I am still to try most of the produce on sale there: amongst the usual boxes of figs, cabbages, parsley, massive sacks of basmati rice, and oblongs of freshly baked Turkish bread, there are curious packs of huge, round, glossy leaves; tiny, mouse-like green vegetables, massive, earth-coloured, potato-looking things, dark rounds strongly smelling of limes - to name just a few. So I have made a decision to pick a fruit or a vegetable, completely randomly, and make something out of it or with it, approximately once a month or so.

And so my fruit of September is a Prickly pear - a cute and gorgeously pale yellow/green/pink fruit, that is only in season a few weeks a year (at least when transported to England). The skin looks soft and subtle and so the subsequent hours spent trying to get rid of numerous splinters in my fingers - all tiny, thin needles that come out of the pear's skin, very similar to a cactus - came as an annoying surprise.

The Prickly pear is a very popular fruit in Greece around this time of the year, and is one of the main nostalgia items for the large population surrounding Green Lanes, and specifically Turkit (so somewhat akin to Russians with our prickly gherkins, see my post on that here).

The similarity with your ordinary pear is only its shape, the flesh inside is a beautiful rose-pink, fleshy and refreshing looking. But biting into the creature was a bit disappointing - lots of soft seeds inside, and the flesh more watery than juicy, the taste, I thought, would suit better to squeezing it into a cold drink, rather than eating it in slices or with a spoon, like I did.

Have you eaten a Prickly pear before? I'm confident that the original Greek fruit found on the sunny islands is a more promising item!

*Obviously, the shop is not as idealic as I describe it, and is a dusty, bitterly cold in winter and stuffy in summer place of work for generations of this family. But you do see people moving on and up from there: it seems to provide a solid basis for some of the 'original' family members and, by being financially successful, an opportunity to study and progress for others, to move beyond the shelf-stocking, weighting and bagging.


Alex said...

yeah, I've had a few in Spain, picked them off these massive cactuses myself - using fig leaves - and still getting the splinters in my fingers. Can't say I was impressed either, but I gather it is full of vitamins and something else good, and I vaguely recall you can do some cooking with it - jam? pudding? soup? - not sure.

Unknown said...

Yes, these are cactuses that grow everywhere in warm mediterranean countries usually beside the road and remind to me russian chertopoloh but big plants with the fruits on top instead of flowers. I knew that they are eatable but never tried them untill recently in Malta we had a nice liquor from them.It appears to be a traditional Maltese drink, a bit sweet as I like :))

Katrina said...

aha! so I was right (well, partly) about it being nice squeezed into a drink!

keep them coming!

DMP said...

They are called 'tuna' in Latin America, and they are a very popular fruit in Chile and Ecuador (and elsewhere in the Americas). In Chile, I had 'tuna' juice all the time - although it was more common to see the green-fleshed ones there. The red fleshed one you bought here is beautiful!

I think that you can also eat the actual cactus (called nopal in Mexico), although I'm not 100% sure it's the same cactus.

The spines are really annoying - they don't seem like they would hurt that much, but they really do.

Katrina said...

'tuna'?? why tuna? there's no fishy there?

DMP said...

It looks like the Spanish word comes from Taino. The word for tuna (fish) is: atĂșn

Also, according to wikipedia, nopales and tuna come from the same cactus, originally native to America (and thus introduced to Turkey, Greece, Spain etc)