Dear Readers, I never know what’s going to turn up in the organic fruit and vegetable box that I get once a fortnight, so finding a pair of pomegranates this week was a real treat! They are a strange fruit in lots of ways: the only edible bit is around the seeds, so they’re quite a lot of work. I remember my Mum saying that when she was a little girl, a pomegranate was such a treat that she’d sit curled up in the armchair for hours, winkling out the seeds one at a time with a pin. She was born in 1935 so I imagine this would have been just after the war, and surely such a fruit would have been an extraordinary luxury.
I remember Dad saying that he was given a banana by Princess Elizabeth as she was then when she visited the East End. It looks as if she spent a lot of the post-WWII period doling out bananas, and in this story, someone actually gives some back. Dad maintained that they ate them with the skins on because they didn’t know any different, though he was always one for embroidering a story if he thought it would make you laugh. It makes me even more determined to eat the ones that are gradually darkening in my fruit bowl. And, in case you missed it, Nigella Lawson even found a use for the banana skins in her recent TV series, to the bafflement of many. I’m sure my Mum would have thought it was a good idea.
But anyway, back to the pomegranate. To my surprise, it’s a member of the Loosestrife family, Lythraceae, which gave us such stars as purple loosestrife. The name ‘pomegranate’ came from medieval Latin, and means ‘seeded apple’. The Latin species name, Punica granatum, led to the idea that the fruit originally came from the city of Granada in Spain, and also led to the name ‘grenadine’ for the pink syrup that was a trendy mixer back in the days when I was a gal (hence ‘pink gin’).
The shrub can grow up to 33 feet tall, but also can be turned into a Bonsai. I’d never seen pomegranate flowers, so here they are!
Even more excitingly, for me anyway, the word ‘grenade’ comes from the appearance of the fruit, and you can see why. Light the bit on the top and you’re away.
Actually, though, pomegranate comes originally from an area from modern-day Iran through to north-western India, though it has been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region for centuries, and has been farmed in Arizona and California. Thomas Jefferson had a pomegranate tree in his garden at Monticello in 1771, and the earlier settlers in the south managed to get some fruit from the tree. I suspect that it has always been a luxury: the fruit was found in the Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck, off the coast of Turkey, alongside perfume, ivory and gold jewellery, and where it is found in tombs these are usually of high-status individuals.
Pomegranates are having something of a resurgence at the moment, along with a rise in interest in ‘Middle Eastern’ food. In particular, I find myself falling over recipes that feature pomegranate molasses, and I can see why – it has an interesting sweet/sour taste that is more interesting than a lot of sugary ingredients. I have even had a drizzle over my porridge and yoghurt in the morning, which is the height of decadence! But those jewel-like seeds look so pretty scattered over savoury dishes that I can see why they’re a hit, and they also add an interesting crunch.
In Iran, pomegranates and walnuts are used, along with other ingredients, to make a fesenjãn, a kind of chicken stew flavoured with spices such as turmeric, rose, cinnamon and cardamom. Delicious!
The pomegranate has also been embraced by Mexicans, and it features in Chiles en nogada, a dish in which the green of chilli, the white of the cream sauce and the red of the pomegranate seeds represents the Mexican flag. It is often eaten during the Mexican Independence celebrations of August and September. In the photo below it looks as if parsley has been used to provide the green colour, although the dish itself is supposed to feature green stuffed chillis. Go figure.
As you might expect for a fruit that’s been part of human culture for so long, there is a whole raft of folklore and mythology around the plant. In Greek legend, the pomegranate was thought to have sprung from the blood of Adonis, and Persephone’s consumption of the seeds while she was in Hades dictated how many months she had to spend underground. Even in modern Greece the pomegranate features in folklore: it is good luck to to be given a pomegranate as a gift when you move into a new house, and the dish kollyva which is brought as an offering to the dead contains wheat boiled with sugar and decorated with pomegranate seeds.
In Judaism, the pomegranate is one of the Seven Species, fruits and vegetables mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as part of the special products of the Land of Israel. It’s traditional to consume pomegranates at Rosh Hashanah because they are symbols of fertility, and this seems to be general: in countries from Azerbaijan to Armenia, China to India, the pomegranate means fruitfulness. In Armenia, which has a long association with the fruit, a bride traditionally smashes a pomegranate against the wall, with the scattered seeds ensuring that the marriage will be blessed with children.
Many Jewish scholars (and some Christian ones) believe that the fruit in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate, not an apple. In Christian iconography, the split fruit represents Christ’s suffering and death, and this is prefigured in Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate (1487).
And now, a poem.In fact, two poems. Eavan Boland died in April last year. She is one of Ireland’s most important poets, and yet I hadn’t come across her before. There is so much to learn in our short lives. Below, I’ve included two of her poems. Pomegranate, because of today’s theme – it might help to know that Boland moved with her family to London in 1950, and had her first experience of the anti-Irish sentiment that was rife. The second poem, Quarantine, is one of those poems that makes everything stop for a moment. See what you think.
Eavan Boland – 1944-2020
The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed. And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and
the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.
Eavan Boland – 1944-2020
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking—they were both walking—north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
Photo One By Sanu N – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70975838
Photo Two by By stringparts – originally posted to Flickr as Fesenjan, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9971172
Photo Three By Jessica Toledo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37857302
Photo Four By Tatevhovikyan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94336234
Photo Five By Sandro Botticelli – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=912727
Photo Six By Uwe Barghaan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4107571