The pomegranate has long seduced the people and palates of the Mediterranean and Middle East. There’s the sweet yet sharp flavour, that intriguing texture, the resistance and then pop of juice of in your mouth and, of course, the sheer sensual beauty of the fruit itself. However, for some reason, many western cuisines have only recently succumbed to their allure.
I can still recall the enchantment of my first. I was in Hydra, a small island off the coast of Greece. I was staying in a tiny apartment, up a flight of stairs concealed behind a bright red door and a swaying curtain of bougainvillea. Despite the tourist trade it was a sleepy town; there were no cars, no motorbikes - the only mode of transport was donkey.
From my bedroom window I would watch the town’s traffic pass below. I could also see in to a beautiful garden across the way, hidden from the cobbled street by a high stone wall. It was a tangled delight of fruit and vegetables with a ramshackle trellis that was so much a part of the garden it was hard to tell if it was holding up the vines, or vice versa. In the corner of the garden, presiding over this scene, was a pomegranate tree.
I wouldn’t have thought of nabbing one had it not been for some local children. With no common language beyond our gestures, this little gang of three coerced me into providing their afternoon sweets. From my perch, I could reach out and pluck the fruit from the sprawling branches. I would throw the fruit to the ground where it would inevitably break into pieces, like a grenade (apparently so-named for the fruit), the pink juice staining the cobblestones as the fragments would erratically bounce away. There were squeals as they would rush for the biggest chunk – the glistening garnet jewels (a colour also named for the fruit) still encased within.
As it turns out, my romanticised memories are nothing on the perception of the pomegranate in antiquity. Intrinsically (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given its appearance) the pomegranate is linked to love and fertility, not just in humans but the earth. Consequently, the pomegranate is everywhere, from Tutankhamun’s tomb to the Torah (which is said to have 613 commandments to correspond with the pomegranate’s apparent 613 seeds).
My favourite version is one found in Greek mythology where Persephone, daughter of Demeter (goddess of the harvest), is kidnapped by Hades (Pluto) and taken off to live in the underworld. Demeter went into mourning and subsequently stopped all growth on earth. Zeus, obviously not wanting the earth to die, stepped in and demanded Persephone’s return. Powerless to entirely disobey, Pluto tricked Persephone into eating six pomegranate seeds, thus condemning her to six months at his side each year. It is on these six months that the earth returns to mourning and we are shrouded in autumn and winter. It is also in these months pomegranates are in season.
It has also been suggested that it was a pomegranate, not an apple, that Eve plucked in the garden of Eden. While I certainly can’t speak for Eve, I’m sure my little friends on that sleepy Greek island would attest to its worthiness of the title.
Select and store:
Perhaps spurred by the super-food mentality, or the interest in the incredible culinary culture of the Middle East (thank you, Mr Ottolenghi), pomegranates are now much easier to come by.
A ripe pomegranate will feel heavy and should be at least the size of a large orange. However, be warned, you can’t judge a pomegranate by its casing. They can vary considerably in colour, from yellows to crimsons (the colour of the pulp can vary considerably too); those with sunken skin can hold delightfully sweet arils just as those with smooth skin.
Lamb, poultry (chicken, duck, game birds), salads, grains (couscous, barley, quinoa, bulgha etc), walnuts, eggplants, orange.
How to deseed
If your recipe requires the arils intact, score the outer skin and break the pomegranate apart with your hands. Be careful to do this over a bowl to catch the excess juice - and be careful, it stains! You will then be able to scoop out the arils with a spoon or your fingers (or hold over the bowl and tap the back of the casing with a wooden spoon). It is best to do this over a separate bowl filled with water as the arils will sink, while the bitter membrane that surrounds them floats to the surface.