Monday, October 4, 2010

Pomegranate — a messy fruit with a rich history

A yellow-skinned pomegranate doesn't turn red like traditional fruit

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 3, 2010)

I didn't grow up eating pomegranates. I don't think I even tasted the tangy-sweet fruit until I was well into adulthood. But two years ago, my son Timmy planted a small orchard that included three pomegranate trees. This year, for the first time, we have an abundant crop.

"Do you think they're ripe yet?" I asked Timmy as we walked past the orchard.

"I don't know," he said. "Let's pick one and find out."

The pomegranates Timmy planted are a yellow-skin cultivar. They don't have the red color traditionally associated with the fruit. Because the leathery outer covering isn't red, the only way to tell if the fruit is ripe is to cut one in half.

Back at the house, we did just that.

"Hmmm, that's interesting," I said, after slicing through the tough skin to expose a honeycomb of tan-colored, pea-sized seeds, each one encased in a clear sack of sticky pulp.

The pulp is the edible part of a fruit that dates to the Early Bronze Age. Archeological excavations have shown that it was among the first cultivated plants. Native to Asia and the Middle East, pomegranates now extend well beyond their origins into cultures and culinary practices around the globe. Mentioned in literary works such as Homer's "Odyssey" and Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," the pomegranate is rich in folklore, religious and mythological references.

Ancient Egyptians believed that pomegranates paved the path to the next life, so they included the fruit in the tomb of King Tut and other notables of the period. In Islam, the Quran mentions pomegranates as a feature of the Garden of Paradise. In Judaism, the pomegranate is a symbol of righteousness and one of only a few images depicted on ancient Judean coins.

In Christianity, the pomegranate is a motif in many religious decorations, and the opened fruit is often included in paintings of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. To Hindus, pomegranates symbolize fertility and prosperity, and they use all parts of the plant in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Today, because of its high antioxidant value, potassium, folic acid, vitamin and iron content, pomegranate juice is a darling of the health-food industry.

I know that my son didn't plant his three pomegranate trees because of their purported health benefits, historical references or religious symbolism. He simply wanted to create an orchard with a wide variety of fruit. Although pomegranates grow in Florida, this is not their ideal climate. The multi-stemmed shrub — about the size of a hibiscus — prefers hot, dry summers and cool winters. The soil it likes best is a heavy loam, although it tolerates clay and sand and acidic, alkaline or even salty locations.

The flowers — bright orange, trumpet-shaped blooms — appear in summer, developing into harvestable fruit by autumn. That's about the time pomegranates start showing up in grocery stores. By December, in time for the holidays, the price usually drops low enough to entice me to buy. Every year I bring home my bargain, slice it open, marvel at its weirdness and make a mess fishing out sticky seeds.

With Timmy's orchard now providing me with homegrown fruit, it's time to clean up my act. I went online to find out the best way to eat a pomegranate without making a counter- and finger-staining mess, and I found a number of YouTube videos demonstrating de-seeding techniques.

Because each pomegranate tree has the potential to produce a couple of hundred pounds of fruit, I'll have plenty of opportunities to perfect my skill. Until then, I'll continue slicing fruit over the sink and wearing a napkin while slurping up the juice.

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