Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Prickly mead

It's been well over a year since I last bottled any mead, and in the past few weeks I've been feeling a little itch to experiment. Not a lot, mind you, but that faint nagging curiosity to explore possibilities. The trip to Corpus Christi proved to be the tipping point. On the drive down there as well as the drive back--nearly three hours each way, not counting stops--we passed through countless miles of rural Texas countryside, and besides a million zillion butterflies the most striking thing I saw were the prickly pear cactus. They were thick along the sides of the road, growing healthily among the barbed wire fencing that is ubiquitous along Texas roads. And they were dripping with some of the biggest, fattest purple-maroon-black fruit I've ever seen.

Prickly pear fruit is edible. Called cactus pear or tunas, it's got nastly little tufts of tiny spines on the outer skin, but inside is a mass of tiny, dark seeds surrounded by a layer of fleshy pulp. And the whole thing's extremely juicy. Depending on the species or even individual plant, the fruit can be sticky sweet, mild, sour, tart, extremely acidic or anywhere amongst those extremes. The juice is a beautiful, clear burgundy red, and as the miles passed I started thinking more and more how interesting a batch of prickly pear honey mead melomel would be.


Last night after dinner, I invited the girls along for a cactus hunt. We hopped in the PT Cruiser armed with barbecue tongs and leather gloves, and headed off down country roads near our house. I quickly realized there weren't many cactus of any type around us. At least, not thick like those to the south or out west in the Hill Country, so I had to scrounge a bit more than planned. A few here off a scraggly cactus under a hackberry tree, a few more from a fence line a few miles down the road. And many cactus we passed had fruit that wasn't yet ripe. I was actually on my way home when I unexpectedly happened across a motherload--one big, fat cactus sitting on the edge of some farmland, covered in deep purple tunas. This one looked like all those I'd seen the previous weekend. I got more than a dozen big, ripe fruit from that one alone. Now I had close to 10 pounds of juicy fruit--more than enough for my grand scheme.


Back home, I selected one plump, well-ripened tuna and sliced it open. Juice ran out all over the place, but luckily I had it over the kitchen sink. I took a spoon and scooped out some seeds for Calista--the seeds were reminiscent in quantity and texture to passion fruit seeds, although they didn't have such plump arils--and then some of the surrounding pulp. Then everyone else tried some. This particular fruit had a flavor that was very mild, midway between a watermelon and bananna. There's very little sugar--there is a sweetness, but it is faint--but by the same token there is little acid, either. The fruit should contribute a light, delicate flavor to the mead I'm planning, as well as a gorgeous color. I expect it will be lightly sweet as well (semi-dry in wine parlance) and well-suited for casual drinking, or perhaps with fish and fruit.

Now I just need to come up with the cash to buy 15 pounds of honey to get things going. Until then, the fruit's in the deep freeze.

Now Playing: Johann Sebastian Back Harpsicord Concertos 1

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