The cactus pear is the Rodney Dangerfield of the fruit world, beloved by immigrants from parts of Latin America and the Mediterranean basin but largely ignored by most consumers in the United States. That may be changing, however, as the leading domestic cactus pear producer, Salinas-based D’Arrigo Bros., has introduced four new, greatly improved varieties — orange, red, purple and green — that are firmer, sweeter and juicier than the traditional variety it has marketed for the last 80 years. They’re starting to be sold at Gelson’s today and are well worth searching out.
It’s the culmination of an ambitious 17-year fruit breeding project, headed by two renowned cactus scientists. And as part of an effort to get the word out, the famously secretive D’Arrigo company has cracked the door open to provide information about one of the most fascinating but little-known fruit industries in California.
Of the hundreds of species of cactus, at least 30 are cultivated for their fruit, but the most important by far is the cactus pear of commerce, Opuntia ficus-indica, which originated in Mexico and has been cultivated there for at least 9,000 years. Christopher Columbus brought the first cactuses to Europe in 1495 on his return from his second trip to the New World, and within a century plants of cactus pear — given the ludicrous name of “Indian fig” because they came from the Indies and supposedly looked like figs — had spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. They particularly flourished in Sicily in arid districts with steep, rocky soil, so much so that by the mid-19th century cactus pears ranked third after grapes and olives among fruit crops on the island.
A Sicilian immigrant to California, Marco Rancadore, introduced cactus pear farming at the turn of the 20th century to San Jose, where for several decades commercial development was limited to supplying the demand from local Italian immigrants familiar with the fruit. In 1926, Rancadore sent a shipment of “prickly pears,” as they were then called, to the East Coast, where they found a much larger market among the Italian American population, and production expanded.
By the 1920s, there were several growers. Stephen D’Arrigo, who had immigrated to the East Coast at age 17 in 1911 and later started growing vegetables such as broccoli and fennel (familiar from his homeland but then barely available in America) in San Jose, became one of the distributors shipping cactus pears east in the late 1920s; in 1930 he registered a trademark, Andy Boy, depicting his 6-year-old son, Andrew. When Stephen died in 1951, Andrew took over running the family company, which he still heads today, at age 87, taking a particular interest in the firm’s cactus pears.
Cactus pear cultivation in the Santa Clara Valley went through several cycles of contraction and expansion in the Depression, World War II and the postwar years. As development in the area increased and land became more valuable, Marco and Sal LoBue, the grandsons of Rancadore, moved most of their production south to Gilroy. In 1968, the LoBue family was ready to give up growing cactus pears, but Andrew D’Arrigo made a deal over drinks at a bar to buy the business, including the production orchards.
A few years later, D’Arrigo changed the name of the product from “prickly pears,” which he thought sounded off-putting, to “cactus pears.” As labor became scarce he stopped the traditional practice of wrapping each fruit in tissue paper. And in the 1980s he moved his plantings to the Gonzales area southeast of Salinas.
This fertile valley, with its equable maritime climate, is best known as the summer salad bowl of America, and it might seem curious that cactus, most associated in the public mind with broiling deserts, would fare well here. But in Mexico most of the roughly 170,000 acres of O. ficus-indica are grown at high altitudes in the tropics where it doesn’t get extremely hot or cold, so the fruit is actually well adapted to the Salinas area.
Just as important, the main season for cactus pear in Mexico is summer, when the country exports large quantities of inexpensive fruit to the United States; in the cooler northern climate, and with the aid of the old Sicilian practice of scozzolatura (from a word meaning “to take the berries away”), removing flowers from the spring flush, D’Arrigo can harvest from October through March, earning higher prices when there is less competition.
“If you left cactus pears alone, you’d have them for 30 days and then you’re out,” said D’Arrigo.
The company now has 300 acres of cactus pears at three plantings in the Gonzales area. Forty of those are of the four new varieties, and half of these were just planted, so production is small, but if demand warrants, the company may shift its plantings to the improved selections.
In decades past, other types of cactus pears with yellow or green fruits were grown in the San Jose area, but the fruits bruised easily and were too tender for shipping to the company’s main markets on the East Coast. The best shipper was a red-fleshed variety similar to the Rossa type grown in Sicily, which was so commercially dominant in California that it didn’t even have a name in the D’Arrigo organization — it was just “the cactus pear.”
Despite its advantages of attractive color and durability, this variety had a relatively soft texture and declined in sweetness during the colder months of the season. In an effort to come up with improved varieties, the company started a breeding program in 1994, headed by Ronald Bunch, who was joined by Peter Felker in 2003. They collected the best cactus pear selections from around the world and noticed that the sweetest and crispest fruits, counterintuitively, had green flesh; red and yellow fruits were more attractive but tended to be soft.
Bunch and Felker made crosses among the best plants from their collection, looking to develop varieties of different colors that had the sweetness and firmness of the best green types and retained this quality over the winter. Over more than a decade they evaluated 9,000 seedlings and 30,000 fruit, and came up with four elite varieties — Sweet Crimson, Sweet Purple, Sweet Emerald and Sweet Sunset — that were patented this year.
Each of the varieties has a distinctive profile, as emerged when I evaluated the fruit on Tuesday with Park Nobel, an eminent retired UCLA cactus scientist, at his home in Bel Air, surrounded by his celebrated cactus garden. Sweet Crimson is the smallest of the four varieties but is crispest and juiciest, with red flesh and a pronounced watermelon flavor. Sweet Purple has an intense purple color in both its skin and flesh, derived from betalin, the same compound that pigments red beets. Sweet Emerald has very crisp, sweet, light green flesh and a cantaloupe flavor. Sweet Sunset has orangish flesh, and it measured lowest in sweetness on a refractometer, but it still tastes quite sweet and has a distinctive aroma.
“All of them are considerably firmer and sweeter than the standard commercial cultivar,” said Nobel.
From Felker’s viewpoint, some of the varieties still have minor flaws, such as long necks and overly thick skin, that could stand to be improved through continued breeding. And like all cactus pears, they still have gritty seeds that may prove objectionable to some consumers (scientists are working on this issue, but that’s another story). But they may well win new fans from those who previously ignored this healthful, refreshing fruit because of its sometimes mealy texture.
Almost all of the small spines, called glochids, are rubbed off the fruit in the packinghouse, but it is wise to handle cactus pears with tongs or gloves, or at least grip them between the areoles, the little brown raised bumps to which the glochids are attached. Cactus pears are non-climacteric, meaning that they do not get sweeter after harvest. They are best stored in the refrigerator, both for longer shelf life and because they are crisper and more refreshing when chilled.
To eat a cactus pear, using a fork and knife, cut off about half an inch from the two ends, exposing the flesh. Then incise the fruit from one end to the other, just deep enough to cut through the skin. Still using the fork to hold the fruit, use the knife to fold back the skin, and peel it off the pulp. Cut this cylinder of pulp into roundels and enjoy.