The first time I was offered cooked cactus, I felt I was being daring to try it. The letdown came with the taste, which was very slightly tart but otherwise bland: think zucchini without the slight sweetness or the touch of green bitterness. Since then, I eat it when it’s offered, but I don’t seek it out. When I was told it’s used a lot to feed livestock, I wasn’t surprised, though I did feel a pang of empathy for the cattle who have to eat it. It is, however, rich in magnesium, and is a modestly useful source of vitamin C.
I naively assumed, for some time, that people wanting to consume it went and picked pieces of wild prickly pear. I had no idea there were 3-million hectares (about 6.6-million acres) of the over-100 edible species of Opuntia cacti grown across Mexico. So, the first time I saw a field of nopal, the cacti growing in long rows, I was fascinated. I suppose someone who disliked broccoli or tomatoes would feel the same way to see rows of broccoli plants or swelling red fruit in a large greenhouse.
A large field of nopales near the town of Tlayacapan, Morelos.
Growing them doesn’t seem complex. Prickly pear are native here, and so they respond well to the natural climate cycle. In some cases, they’re grown to attract cochineal insects, which love them, and from which carmine dye is extracted. This fell into disuse in the 20th Century, with the growth in synthetic dyes, but it’s made a comeback for food colouring and lipstick as concerns over synthetics generally have increased.
The downside to this fact is that if you want to grow the nopales for food, then the cochineals are a pain, and you have to spray to keep them at bay. The plants seem to continue growing when infested with cochineals, though; one in our back yard is covered in them but seems otherwise healthy.
Cochineals conceal themselves under a soft screen of white fibres on our backyard nopal.
Some of the fields growing nopal aren’t much larger than an average back yard – in other words, it’s a small sideline for a small farmer – while others are surprisingly extensive. The town of Tlayacapan, a few miles from where I live, has large swathes of nopal in the flatter areas among the hills.
If you’ve ever been given a piece of prickly pear by someone who owns one, you know you can plant it and it will put down roots and also grow new cladodes, the technical term for the flattened, leaf-like stems ‘leaves’ that in time become actual stems. The things can grow as big as small trees, given time, but a nopal farmer wants to harvest young cladodes, which obviously are more tender and tasty to eat.
Some growers break off entire cladodes, but at least one grower whose crops I examined was cutting them in half. The bisected leaves then put our two new cladodes each, so there is uninterrupted food production: two pieces of edible cactus where there was one before. Somebody, of course, has to scrape off all those teeny little spines, which can stay in your skin for days, and I often see women in the market in town doing this with scrapers. I assume the nopal pickers themselves wear gloves; either that, or they perversely enjoy feeling like human porcupines.
This farmer has sliced his nopales‘ cladodes, selling half of each and letting new leaves grow from each sliced surface.
Staring at the lines of cacti, scarcely two feet in height, I’ve considered that it can’t be hard to grow a crop. And they’re kinda pretty to look at. But my passing horticultural fantasies always disappear when I consider one basic fact: I still don’t like them enough to want to eat them much. And I’m sure they’d end up on my plate a lot simply because there’d always be some available.