Pomegranates – the fruit of pharaohs, goddesses and other famous folk

Pomegranates have long been revered in the Middle East and finally the rest of us are finding out why.

WHEN, about 3 333 years ago, 19 year old Tutankhamen was entombed in the Valley of the Kings, his entourage apparently tossed in – along with ample golden chariots, thrones, statues, amulets, goblets, cats and other cherished possessions they believed he would require on the other side – some pomegranates.

The young pharaoh, it seems, was not only keen on the health, fertility and rejuvenating properties attributed even then to the fruit, he was also very fond of its flavour – and he was not alone in his partiality.

Greek goddess Persephone sealed her destiny and remained forever in the underworld when all resistance crumbled and she accepted a pomegranate from Hades. But wait, there’s more. Some sources even claim that the serpent tempted Eve with, not an apple, but a pomegranate. And for Moses, it was a pomegranate, not a carrot that did the trick. He promised the Israelites, not just a land of milk and honey, but also one in which they would find (you guessed it) pomegranates.

But it is not just the fruit’s sharp, tangy and tart flavour that has enthralled people, pharaohs and goddesses through the ages. The almost perfectly round pomegranate, with its spiky crown, is a most gorgeous looking fruit. Its leathery skin is generally yellow with beautiful overlays of shiny pale or deep pink, or plush red. Then, when you open a really ripe one, the juicy red arils (seed coverings) tumble out of spongy white or yellow pith walls in glorious, glowing disarray.

Indeed, move over Venus and Mona Lisa. Such a fine-looking fruit is the pomegranate that it has, for centuries, been the subject of still-life paintings by countless eminent artists.

In the 17th century Dutch painter, Jan Davidsz de Heem included, not one, but a pair in one of his long-lauded oil paintings of fruit. Paul Cezanne’s Still Life With Pomegranate and Pears is widely considered one of the 19th century French impressionist’s most famous works. Fellow Frenchman, Eugene Henri Cauchois paired the fruit with flowers in at least two of the magnificently decorative still life oil paintings that he is well known for. More recently, British fooddess Nigella Lawson – alluding to the glistening prettiness of the ornate arils and seeds that she uses to decorate it – described her stunning pomegranate creation as “an open jewel-case of a cake”.

Certainly, the epicurean and the artist have long celebrated the pomegranate. Historians trace it back as far as 3 000 BC and it is considered one of the earliest cultivated fruits in the world.

Although it is indigenous to areas stretching from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India, the fruit was initially most widely cultivated in the Mediterranean region, and in India, Southeast Asia, the East Indies and more tropical parts of Africa.

Pomegranates have been included in Middle Eastern recipes forever but they were, until recently, rather more of a seasonal novelty in the west, despite being increasingly widely cultivated in other countries, including the United States, Turkey, Israel and Spain. It was only when, in recent years, medical studies convinced westerners that pomegranates might reduce the onset of cancer, heart disease and even old age that the popularity of pomegranates really took off worldwide. Add to that claims that pomegranate juice is effective as a cure for urinary tract infections, as a protection against Alzheimer’s disease and is a powerful antioxidant, and its popularity has been growing ever since, bolstered these days by the fact that foodies are increasingly enjoying its great taste and versatility as an ingredient.

The hype about the health benefits of pomegranates is ongoing and sometimes, it emerges, over the top. Following a recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the United Kingdom, an advertisement for pomegranate juice was withdrawn for being “misleading”. The advertisement, which showed a bottle of juice with a noose tied around it, claimed that consumers of the “antioxidant power of pomegranate juice” might “cheat death”. The ASA found that the company advertising the juice had failed to provide hard evidence that this was factual.

Health claims notwithstanding, the fruit’s fresh, tangy, sometimes sour, and sometimes sweet – there are numerous varieties – flavours are increasingly incorporated into modern recipes, both savoury and sweet. Whereas it has always been used in Middle Eastern dishes like fesenjan – which is a traditional Persian duck or chicken stew, with pomegranates and walnuts – the fruit is now also widely incorporated into salads, lamb dishes, chicken sautés, desserts and cakes. Juice or molasses made from pomegranates adds a fresh and fragrant dash of sourness to marinades, vinaigrettes, braises and dips these days.

“Sure, health findings have increased consumer interest in pomegranates in recent year,” says master chef at Rickety Bridge Fine Foods, Rob Hahn, “but the fruit has been around for ages and finally we are accepting what an exciting ingredient it is to work with.”

Rickety Bridge’s popular pink pomegranate and citrus “Splash” salad dressing so delighted guests at the Franschhoek winery’s restaurant that it is now available at a growing number of farm stalls, delicatessens and stores.

Fellow Franschhoek valley resident and historian, Wendy Pickstone of Lekkerwjin Country House, concurs that pomegranates have a long history in the Western Cape. A beautifully twisted old pomegranate tree, which is enclosed within a courtyard at Lekkerwjin, is believed to be more than 100 years old.

“Inevitably, you will find at least one ancient pomegranate tree at the old homesteads in the valley,” she says. “I believe that the pith of pomegranates was used to create a tea that was fed to children to eradicate worms.”

In spite of the existence of old trees in South Africa and the suitability of our climate to the farming thereof, commercial cultivation of pomegranates is new to the country. It is, however, gaining in momentum, with particular success in the Western Cape with a sweet variety called Bhagwa.

In addition, Stellenbosch-based “cultivar management company”, CitroGold recently acquired exclusive rights to the Smith Pomegranate, which, says the company, is admired for its “exceptional qualities of early maturing and excellent internal quality”. The company is working with the Northern Cape Development Agency to assist rural communities in that province to successfully grow pomegranates. Key projects are planned along the Orange River.

South Africa’s pomegranate season begins with the harvest of early ripening cultivars in February, while late ripening cultivars are picked in April. Because they can be stored for up to four months in the right conditions, you might find fresh pomegranates in stores for some time beyond the season.

Variations of bottled pomegranate juice, syrup and molasses – mostly imported at this stage – are available year round. There is no excuse then, for you not to check out why King Tut, Persephone, Eve, Cezanne and others were so turned on by the pomegranate.

Roast leg of lamb with pomegranate and rosemary

1 medium sized leg of lamb
3 cups pomegranate juice
1/4 (quarter) cup Dijon mustard
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of freshly minced rosemary

Combine juice, mustard, garlic and rosemary in a large bowl or dish, and mix well. Place the lamb in the mixture, cover tightly and marinate for two days. Pre-heat oven to 180ºC and place in a roasting pan for about an hour or as you prefer. While lamb is in the oven and simmer liquid in a saucepan until it is reduced to a thick glaze, which you use to glaze lamb.

(First published in The Weekender.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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