When Rita García got up, the sky, dotted with stars, looked as if it had been painted with black ink.
Silently, he grabbed a small flashlight that was on his nightstand, put on his shoes, and stepped out into the warm desert air.
He entered a makeshift kitchen that was covered.
Inside, he sat on a plastic chair, reached into a large bucket, and carefully grabbed the first cactus in just the right place to avoid hurting himself on its thorns.
Using a small pocket knife, he deftly made quick movements and very slightly turned the pear-shaped cactus to cut the thorns to perfection.
When he finished, García threw him into a bag and continued with the next ones. It was barely 3:00 a.m. and there were only three more hours left for the truck to arrive at his family’s farm to pick up its precious cargo: 11 packages in total.
Your destiny: the market.
Like his ancestors, García continues a long tradition of harvesting nopales, one of Mexico’s most beloved staple foods.
What took Garcia only five seconds took me, the inexperienced guest, five minutes, and I still didn’t do it right. Even García laughed when I showed him my cut cactus.
Despite its appearance, it served as part of the cactus salad we prepared for our lunch at his family farm, El Barranco, which is located about 30 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, on the Baja California peninsula.
Known as one of the most traditional ingredients in Mexican cuisine, nopales are making a comeback.
This nutritious food can be found almost everywhere, from homes, taquerias, restaurants and cooking classes in Mexico, to infiltrating the cuisine of the American Southwest.
“The nopal cactus comes from a Nahuatl word, ‘nohpalli‘, which dates back to pre-Columbian times,” says Danny Pérez, our guide from Dharma Expeditions, a Los Cabos-based outfitter that connects travelers with ranchers and the local community for a traditional cooking class.
“This cactus is deeply rooted in our culture and national identity,” says Danny, as we tour García’s family farm.
“It can be found in our flag, in art and even within ancient mythology based on the founding of Tenochtitlán, the ancient Aztec capital and modern-day Mexico City. It is very symbolic for the Mexican people.”
Passing goats, native desert scrub, and a small family garden, it was easy to see why cacti have become so ingrained in Mexican life.
It grows everywhere, reproduces easily and blooms even in harsh climates like that of the Baja California peninsula.
In a place that receives very little rain, the cacti not only survive, they thrive, just like García and his ancestors, who have lived and worked in this arid, inhospitable land for centuries.
When García was showing us how to select perfectly ripe nopales – the ones that are young and vibrant, almost electric green – he told us that they are usually most tender and juicy in the spring, but can be harvested all year round.
With their very particular flavor and ability to be part of almost every meal, nopales have been an important staple food. during centuries.
They are extremely healthy, nutritious and versatile. Full of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibera cactus pad can fill a hungry stomach for hours, García explains.
That is why they can be found as a mainstay in almost every Mexican home.
“You can do everything with this cactus,” says García while helping us prepare our food.
“You can boil it, grill it, eat it raw as a juice, or add it to stew, sauces, or eggs.”
“It’s a Mexican ‘superfood,’” his daughter Joycelyn laughs.
In addition to the pad, nopales also carry a small oval-shaped fruit called prickly pearwhich has a sweet watermelon-like flavor and is used in juices, cocktails, and jellies.
As we gathered the tomatoes, onions, garlic, and cilantro for the salad, all fresh from the farm, Jocelyn quickly showed us how to slice the nopales.
“Hold them steady as you cut them, first lengthwise and then widthwise,” he instructed us.
Nopales are sticky and slimy, as they are full of mucilage, a thick substance that is the guardian of the cactus fiber.
We boil our coveted nopales on a traditional charcoal grill and wait.
10 minutes later, the nopales were perfectly cooked, drained and ready to cool. We prepared the salad while Pérez played his guitar.
Finally, it was time to put together our first taco. I grabbed a freshly made corn tortilla, filled it with cactus salad, red and green sauce, and fresh goat cheese made on the farm that day.
“This is the true meaning of food that goes from farm to table“García smiled as we listened to the bleating of the goats.
This note is an adaptation of an article published in BBC Travel and which you can read in English here.
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