Used by the Aztecs and brought to the Mediterranean some four centuries ago from Central and South America, the prickly pear (bajtra tax-xewk) is a large cactus of the genus Opuntia. Each part of the plant is edible, including the succulent pads or nopals. In Mexico, the spines of the fruit were used as needles while a deep colourful dye was extracted from the juice of the ripe fruit.
Said to have antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-clotting properties, the sap of the prickly pear cactus was used to soothe sunburnt skin, itches, and other burns in much the same way aloe vera is used today.
In lean years the cactus plant was cut up and fed to livestock, and the fruit partially dried on rooftops whilst still green and attached to a small part of the nopals to last through the winter months. A splash of local Bajtra liqueur transforms a plain Bourbon vanilla ice cream into an evocative fruity summer dessert.