The plant was first introduced into Europe after the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. The fruits were named fichio d’India (Indian fig) because when Christopher Columbus arrived in the new continent and saw prickly pears he thought he was in India.
These colorful fruits make a sweet snack or a margarita mixer. Unlike Mexico and other countries, Italy doesn't use the cactus paddles, but simply loves this pear shaped fruit. Intensive plantations across Sicily and the southern mainland make it only second to Mexico in cactus fruit production.
Many say that Fichi d'India are sweet but not too sweet. Some describe the flavor like a fig crossed with a plum. They are also very seedy, with big, hard seeds. Some like to feel the crunch of the seeds between their teeth, while others eat them as they do pomegranates, swallowing seeds along with the gelatinous flesh (think, "fiber"). In southern Italy (especially Sicily) people love eating them fresh. You will often find them pre-skinned and ready to eat in market displays. The taste varies with the color--white, orange and red. Some say that the red ones have more flavor than the other colors.
One interesting tradition is winery owners giving the fruit to their grape-pickers for breakfast to prevent them from eating grapes during the harvesting. This tradition is still kept today.
Besides being eaten fresh, Fichi d'India can be used in salads, vinaigrette and made into granita, jams or honey. They are also used in Sicilian cakes, such as Buccellato, which is very common at Christmas time. You can drink juice from the fichi d'India, but it really needs some lemon added for additional acid. In fact, it is often used in commercial drinks as a flavoring.
The fruit is high in vitamin C, antioxidants. calcium and phosphorus.
When Life Gives Them Lemons, Italians Make Limoncello
fresh from the cactus plant--without getting hurt.