Avocado, Wild Asparagus and Figs

I must admit to being very partial to Guacamole dip, especially nice and spicy, so being surrounded by avocado trees is an absolute joy. The avocado is widely cultivated throughout the world and the avocado tree is a common sight in almost every part of Andalucia and, of course, it is also the basic ingredient of that ‘food of the gods’, Guacamole Dip.

Mexico, the United States, Chile, South Africa, Spain and Israel are the world’s leading producers of avocados.

The avocado (Persea americana) is a tree native to Central Mexico and is classified as belonging to the flowering plant family Lauraceae along with cinnamon, camphor and bay laurel. Avocado or alligator pear is also used to refer to the fruit, which may be pear-shaped, egg-shaped or spherical. It originated in the state of Puebla, Mexico, where the native, undomesticated variety is known as a criollo.

The word ‘avocado’ comes from the Mexican Spanish aguacate which in turn comes from the Nahuatl word ahuácatl (meaning scrotum or testicle and referring to the shape of the fruit). The Nahuatl ahuacatl can be compounded with other words, as in ahuacamolli, meaning avocado soup or sauce, from which the Mexican Spanish word guacamole is derived.

Avocados were known by the Aztecs as ‘the fertility fruit’.

Avocado trees do not like freezing temperatures and can be grown only in subtropical or tropical climates. The avocado is a climacteric fruit (like the banana), which means it matures on the tree but ripens off the tree.

Tip: If you have an avocado tree and are harvesting the fruit for your own use, leave a bit of the stalk attached to the fruit as this will slow down the ripening process. However much one likes avocados, having them all ripen at once is usually a tragic waste.

Commercially grown avocados are usually picked hard and green and kept in coolers until they reach their final destination. Avocados must be mature to ripen properly and generally the fruit is picked once it reaches maturity.

An average avocado tree produces about 500 avocados annually, with commercial orchards producing an average of seven tonnes per hectare each year.

There are dozens of varieties or cultivars (a plant or group of plants selected for desirable characteristics that can be maintained by propagation) of avocados in existence today, but by far the most common is the Hass avocado, accounting for 80% of the world’s cultivated avocados.

All Hass avocado trees are descended from a single tree cultivated by a mail carrier named Rudolph Hass, of La Habra Heights, California. Hass patented the productive tree in 1935. The ‘mother tree’ died of root rot and was cut down in September 2002. Hass trees have medium-sized fruit with a black, pebbled skin and can withstand temperatures as low as −3°C.

In the United Kingdom, the avocado became widely available in the 1960s when it was introduced by Marks and Spencer under the name ‘avocado pear’. However, many customers apparently tried to use it as a dessert ingredient like other pears, adding such things as custard, and subsequently complained that it was inedible. As a result, Marks and Spencer dropped the word ‘pear’ and labelled it simply ‘avocado’.

When shopping for avocados, look for fruit that is heavy for its size, an indication of good moisture content. The flesh should be soft enough to yield slightly to gentle thumb pressure, but if it yields too much then it is overripe. The skin should not exhibit any tears or bruising.

If the avocado is hard when you buy it, you can ripen it by placing it in a paper bag with an apple, banana, pear or tomato as these fruits emit ethylene gas which hastens ripening. Once ripened, the avocado will keep in the refrigerator up to one week. Once peeled and opened, avocados do tend to go brown very quickly but a drop of lemon or lime juice will slow down this process.

Never feed avocados to pets or other animals as avocados contain persin, a fungicidal toxin. Although harmless to humans, it can make animals very sick or even kill them.

In the Philippines, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, and southern India, avocados are frequently used to make milkshakes. In Ethiopia, avocados are made into juice by mixing them with sugar and milk or water and often served with Vimto and a slice of lemon.

Wild Asparagus

If you are looking for something a bit different to do during your stay, why not a trip into the countryside for a bit of hunting. Not for animals, but for wild asparagus and wild fennel.

Spring, basically from February to April, is the time for catching wild asparagus and you may well see whole families traipsing through the countryside, knife in hand and eyes glued to the ground.

Although Asparagus is quite distinctive, it is not particularly easy to spot, unlike wild fennel, but with a bit of patience (or watching the locals) you should be successful.

There are around 15 species of wild asparagus in the Mediterranean area, some truly wild, others being more ‘escaped’ domestic varieties.

Asparagus likes water, but does not like water-logged areas, grows in well draining soil near ditches or riverbeds where there is plenty of moisture nearby. It usually likes full sun, although some varieties will also survive in heavier soil and semi-shaded areas. It is often found hiding under bushes, thorny thickets or near rocky areas alongside riverbeds.

So, where are you almost certain to find some in Nerja without too much trouble?

Behind the old San Joaquin Sugar factory is a track up into the natural park which takes you through a beautiful eucalyptus-lined gorge before winding up to a point midway between the track connecting the Nerja Caves and El Pinarillo.

All along this route you will find loads of asparagus, and wild fennel, much of it right next to the track, albeit somewhat hidden from plain sight in the case of asparagus. Wild asparagus is slightly thinner and darker than the cultivated variety and has a lot of flavour, otherwise it is basically the same. You can cook it as you would any other type of asparagus.

Figs

The Common FigFicus carica, is a deciduous tree growing to heights of up to 6 metres. It originates from the Middle East but is now found all over the Mediterranean area due to its liking for dry and sunny areas. It grows wild all over the place, from hillsides to rocky areas close to the sea and there are a lot of them scattered all over Nerja.

The edible fig was one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans and was a common food source for the Romans.

Figs can be eaten fresh (delicious) or dried, but most commercial production is in dried or otherwise processed forms, since the ripe fruit does not transport well and once picked, does not keep very well. A bit like chirimoyas (custard apples), best eaten almost straight from the tree.

There are often two crops of figs each year, the first or breva crop developing in the spring on last year’s shoot growth. The main fig crop develops on the current year’s shoot growth and ripens in the late summer or autumn. The main crop is generally superior in both quantity and quality than the breva crop, although some cultivars produce good breva crops.

The ‘breva’ crop is often to be seen on sale in the local shops in Nerja and is clearly marked ‘breva’.

In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are said to have used fig leaves to cover their nakedness after eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

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