Traveling south into Mulege, you don’t want to miss a very local fruit known as the Pitaya. Its history is as rich as the fruit, itself — luscious and vibrant as is the Pitaya, when it is sliced wide open.
Pitaya is the fruit of the cactus. Way before recorded history, it is said that the Cochimi Indians waited every season for this fruit from the Organ Pipe, Pitaya Dulce, to ripen sometime in May through July.
When the cactus flowered and the blossom dropped away, they knew the harvest season was near. The globular fruit with spines began to form. Finally, when the Pitaya was about the size of a tennis ball, the festival of the Pitaya would begin with a jubilant celebration. This fruit was in abundance, an anomaly in the otherwise arid and austere life of survival in the desert.
The Jesuit missionaries were the first to record their experience of the Pitaya Festival. They noted that the Cochimi would gorge themselves on the wild harvest and the fermented juice. During the feasting, tribes traveled about, mixing with other Cochimi to reinforce their society. It was a rather dangerous time for the young women, as the young men would pursue them while gathering the fruit. Dancing with clothing was optional — and happy inebriation lead to matrimony.
The fruit of the cactus provided a highly valued but short-lived seasonal food resource. Additionally, the seeds were prized. Much to the dismay of the padres, the Indians did not remove the tiny seeds from the pulp; instead, after eating the Pitaya, seed and all, they would defecate at a particular spot, later gathering their own dried feces. The seeds were harvested, washed and ground into a meal, probably used in other foods . The padres called this “the second pitaya harvest” and were thoroughly repulsed.
Cochimi were the aboriginal inhabitants of the central part of Baja California from El Rosario to south of Mulege and the Bay of Conception. The first encounter of Cochimi and Europeans was with the Spanish explorers in the 16th Century; in the late 17th century, they came in contact with the Jesuit Missionaries. The Franciscans ultimately took control from the Jesuits, completing the mission establishments up into Alta California. By the early 20th century, the native population had declined significantly due to diseases carried to the region from the “new world,” and eventually the Cochimi language and culture became extinct.
Today, during July and August, you can find the Pitaya fruit sold along the road ways in some northern cities. La Paz in Baja Sur still honors this history with a Pitaya Festival every year in August. There are many different varieties of cactus that produce fruit. Some are referred to as Dragon Fruit and might have white pulp. This is not to be confused with the rich red fruit of the southern Baja region. To bite into the sweetness tasting like watermelon and strawberry, it is not hard to know why the Indians were so euphoric about its arrival, and stayed that way for months!
• 1/2 Pitaya (chilled)
• 1 frozen banana
• 1 tray of ice-cubes
• 1 cup of apple juice (or any fruit juice)
• 1 cup of plain yogurt
Simply cut the Pitaya into halves and then scoop out all the fruit with a spoon. Put into a blender, adding a cup of plain yogurt, the banana, ice-cubes and juice. Blend and drink. (Adding Flor de Caña rum is optional…but only for some!) You can also whip it up into a frosty Pitaya Daiquiri…its flavor will make you want to dance like the Cochimis did.
Baja is all about the senses. What are you favorite foods and flavors in Baja? Send us your photos!
Martina Dobesh is a long-time resident of Baja California. She edits her own on-line publication The Baja Sun, a journalist for The Baja Times and the Baja News and has many published works on EzineArticle.com
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Pitaya Reference: Baja California Plant Field Guide by Norman C. Roberts
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