Eden’s Other Fruit
Two Mollar de Elche pomegranates still on their branch. Toya Legido/©ICEX
Author: Celia Hernando/©ICEX
We are off to the Alicante coast (southeastern Spain), famous as a tourist magnet and now also the epicenter of Europe's pomegranate production. Our mission is to look into the credentials of the world's sweetest pomegranate: Mollar de Elche, which is grown exclusively in the Spanish countryside.
An increasingly common sight in our supermarkets, the world's total area given over to their cultivation is growing exponentially year on year, as is the number of Google entries and column inches devoted to them in the press. Catapulted to stardom thanks to their health-giving properties, pomegranates are the 21st century's latest must-have product. Yet our love affair with the pomegranate dates back a very long way indeed: some even believe that this was the forbidden fruit disobediently picked by Eve.
"The city of Elche can be recognized through the date palms that cover its entire district.(...) For a moment, one believes himself to be transported to the plains of Syria or to the shores of the Delta." The words of the French traveler Alexandre de Laborde still ring true 200 years after he wrote them. Despite the buildings that now inevitably punctuate its present-day landscape, this Mediterranean coastal town - a little powerhouse of world pomegranate production - still has a distinct look of Al-Andalus about it.
Its Palmeral (Palm tree forest) was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000: this area of formally laid-out date palm groves is an eloquent example of man's battle against the elements to transform a hostile, arid environment into fertile land. The Arab colonizers of the Iberian Peninsula (711-1492) brought with them their traditional mastery of the oasis principle: this amounted to a sustainable, revolutionary irrigation system for carrying out intensive horticulture.
Rows of date palms helped create a benign microclimate, making it possible to grow fruit trees and other plants previously unknown in the Christian world. Among these was the pomegranate, which soon became the sultan's favorite. As Ibn Said (1213-1286), respected chronicler of that period, records: "Abd al Rahman I planted strange seeds brought to him from Syria by his ambassadors, which bore curious fruits. The monarch was delighted by the loveliness and beauty of the pomegranate and disseminated it the length and breadth of Al-Ándalus."
Thousand Year Old Orchards
"These trees have been here forever! You have only to drop a seed on the ground and a pomegranate tree grows." A wander around the area that lies between Elche and Albatera, in the south of the Alicante province, is enough to reveal the truth behind this nugget of local folk wisdom. Fields of pomegranates and oranges stretch as far as the horizon in a flat expanse nevertheless endowed with a spectacularly dizzying skyline worthy of Manhattan, with majestic, centuries-old palm trees interposed among the crops.
We are in the Vinalopó Valley, an area of fertile open ground and orchards bounded by the calm waters of the Mediterranean to the east and the mountains of the Cordillera Bética Mountains to the north. This area is the source of most of the 25,000 tonnes of pomegranates that constitute Spain's qualification as Europe's only large-scale producer (it is beaten in the world ranking only by Iran, India and Pakistan). Furthermore, much of its production is destined for the international market, making the region a heavyweight exporter on a global scale.
At the Right Time
While other types of fruit would be lucky to survive such long journeys, pomegranates arrive at each of their destinations in perfect condition. "They were one of the favorite fruits of nomadic people precisely because of their astonishing keeping capacity," we are informed by André Irles, director of the Cambayas Cooperative. He also tells us that the secret lies in picking them off the tree at just the right time: "Not too early because, once picked, pomegranates halt the ripening process abruptly and not too late because they are then at risk of splitting open."
In calendar terms, the right time occurs in September-October in this part of the world. By the way, the harvest is not a one-off affair. Pomegranate trees flower sequentially, creating the need for phased harvesting which is, by definition, manual and selective. Over a period of four weeks, the same tree can be picked two, three and even four times to ensure that each pomegranate is harvested at its optimal stage of ripeness.
The pomegranate blossom was replaced months ago by the fruits that now, in October, fill the harvesters' crates. This first picking of Valenciana pomegranates serves as a warm-up for another, later and perhaps more eagerly awaited harvest of the Mollar de Elche variety, unchallenged monarch of the Alicante countryside.
Accustomed as he is to the flavor of the Mollar de Elche variety, Domingo Arce, director of the Albafruits Cooperative, the biggest in Albatera (Alicante), can barely contain his mirth when he recalls his first taste of a foreign pomegranate. "I thought it was a different fruit altogether! It was as sour as a lemon!" Cating all humbleness aside, there is little doubt that, for sweetness, the pomegranates grown hereabouts stand out proudly from all the rest.
Spanish-grown pomegranates have a characteristic caramel flavor that gives them a big advantage in an increasingly competitive market. But the high concentration of sugars is not Mollar de Elche's only advantage: it also has very small, soft, yielding pips that are barely discernible in the mouth so that this variety is very easy to eat.
As in the wine world, the varietal is just one factor in the fruit's overall character. To borrow wine terminology, this part of Alicante is the equivalent of a terroir that stamps its indelible imprint on the Mollar de Elche pomegranate. Like vines, pomegranate trees survive in conditions that few other plants can tolerate. They cope well with drought and thrive in poor soils. This explains why the pomegranate has found an apparently ideal habitat in this area: completely flat terrain at (and occasionally below) sea level, with just the right salinity levels.
Having said that, the outer look and color of a pomegranate should not be taken as an indicator of quality. Strangely enough, even the ripest pomegranates in the Mollar de Elche family never go bright red. Their natural color range lies between tones of orange and deep pink. That being the case, how does one know when the fruit is at its peak? Pepe Botella, director of Elche's Copelche Cooperative, reveals two basic yardsticks: perfectly rounded shape and a good weight to size ratio (irrefutable evidence that the pomegranate in question is full of juice). "Today's consumers are learning how to select them in the supermarket," he comments. "After years of buying tomatoes that look perfect but lack flavor, we know that appearances can be deceptive when choosing fruit."
In the Alicante province, many chefs have been hanging on for the better part of a year: pomegranates are a winter fruit in this part of the world, making an appearance in September or October and remaining available until January or February. During that period, they feature on the menus of many local restaurants, such as two-Michelin-star-holder Quique Dacosta Restaurant in Dénia (Alicante). Head chef Quique Dacosta likes to showcase Spanish pomegranates on his menu. "I think I've been using them since I started here," he beams, "and I've always tried to capitalize on their texture, which is crunchy and sweet and juicy at the same time, with acidic, bitter overtones." Among the dishes coming out of his kitchen today are eye-catching crystallized apple bow-shaped puff pastries with aloe, sweet leaf tea and pomegranate.
Kiko Moya, who runs the one-Michelin-star restaurant L'Escaleta in Cocentaina (also in Alicante province), loves pomegranates. "Those trees have been there all my life. They were the backdrop to my childhood," he recalls. "Pomegranates are such a versatile fruit that they can be used throughout the menu." Like Quique, Kiko emphasizes the importance of their exceptional texture. "Visually, the red grains have the same jewel-like look as fish roe. Those little natural spheres burst in your mouth, leaving a sensation of freshness, sweetness, acidity and bitterness all at the same time. It's quite an explosion of flavors."
Babylonian soldiers used to chew pomegranate grains before going into battle, convinced that the fruit's characteristic resilience would make them invincible. Hippocrates (ca.460- ca.370 BC), who in classical Antiquity launched the famous "let food be your medicine" principle, used to recommend that his patients drink pomegranate juice to bring down a fever. Throughout the centuries, healers from various cultures have prescribed pomegranates for ailments ranging from conjunctivitis to hemorrhoids, with pharyngitis and laryngitis in between. What in olden times was an "empirical intuition", so to speak, has now been validated by scientific testing.
Modern medicine has shown that far from being an old wives' tale, this fruit does indeed possess health-giving properties that qualify it as a super-food. Pomegranates now rank alongside berries and green tea in the pantheon of foods with outstanding nutritional and anti-oxidant properties. Instrumental in their ascent have been scientists such as Dr. Michael Aviram, also an exponent of the benefits of wine-derived tannins. His research at the University of Haifa, Israel, has recently shown that pomegranate polyphenols lower cholesterol levels in the blood, thereby reducing the risk of a heart attack.
Research by Dr. David Holtzman, Head of Neurology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, has found that these polyphenols also appear to have neuroprotective properties. Still in the US, in 2005 the University of Madison published the results of several studies affirming that regular consumption of pomegranate juice inhibits the growth and progress of prostate cancer. Many more beneficial effects are attributed to pomegranates, including that they are estrogenic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and aid digestion. And all the indicators show that the list is far from complete just yet.
Recipes with Spanish pomegranates:
- Almond milk, rose-flavored spun sugar and pomegranate.
- Pomegranate seed salad and roe with ginger ice cream.
- Pomegranate with Muscatel, citrus confit and eucalyptus ice cream.
- Wood pigeon marinated in pomegranate juice, and saffron gold.
- Red tuna belly with beetroot and pomegranate.
- Pomegranate and orange salad.
Celia Hernando is a journalist. She has worked with radio stations Cadena Ser and Punto Radio and was a trainee journalist at Spain Gourmetour.