Pomegranates At Leila’s Shop
Now is the season for pomegranates. All over the East End, I have spotted them gleaming in enticing piles upon barrows and Leila’s Shop in Calvert Avenue has a particularly magnificent display of glossy red Spanish ones. Only a few years ago, these fruit were unfamiliar in this country and I do remember the first time I bought a pomegranate and set it on a shelf, just to admire it.
My father used to tell me that you could eat a pomegranate with a pin, which was an entirely mysterious notion. Yet it was not of any consequence, because I did not intend to eat my pomegranate but simply enjoy its intriguing architectural form, reminiscent of a mosque or the onion dome of an orthodox church and topped with a crown as a flourish. This was an exotic fruit that evoked another world, ancient and far away.
As months passed, my pomegranate upon the shelf would dry out and wither, becoming hard and leathery as it shrank and shrivelled like the carcass of a dead creature. A couple of times, I even ventured eating one when my rations were getting low and I was hungry for novelty. It was always a disappointing experience, tearing at the skin haphazardly and struggling to separate the fruit from the pithy fibre. Eventually, I stopped buying pomegranates, content to admire them from afar and satiate my appetite for autumn fruit by munching my way through crates of apples.
Then, last year, Leila McAlister showed me the traditional method to cut and eat a pomegranate – and thus a shameful gap in my education was filled, bringing these alluring fruit to fore of my consciousness again. It is a simple yet ingenious technique of three steps. First, you cut a circle through the skin around the top of the fruit and lever it off. This reveals the lines that naturally divide the inner fruit into segments, like those of an orange. Secondly, you make between four and eight vertical cuts following these lines. Thirdly, you prise the fruit open, like some magic box or ornate medieval casket, to reveal the glistening trove of rubies inside, attached to segments radiating like the rays of a star.
Once this simple exercise is achieved, it is easy to remove the yellow pith and eat the tangy fruit that is appealingly sharp and sweet at the same time, with a compelling strong aftertaste. All these years, I admired the architecture of pomegranates without fully appreciating the beauty of the structure that is within. Looking at the pomegranate displayed thus, I can imagine how you might choose to eat it one jewel at a time with a pin. It made me wonder where my father should have acquired this curious idea about a fruit which was rare in this country in his time and then I recalled that he had spent World War II in the Middle East as a youthful recruit, sent there from Devon at the age of nineteen.
Looking at the fruit opened, I realised I was seeing something he had seen on his travels so many years ago and now, more than ten years after he died, I was seeing it for the first time. How magical this fruit must have seemed to him when he was so young and far away from home for the first time. They call the pomegranate ‘the fruit of the dead’ and, in Greek mythology, Persephone was condemned to the underworld because of the pomegranate seeds that she ate yet, paradoxically, it was the fabled pomegranate which brought my youthful father back to me when he had almost slipped from my mind.
Now, thanks to this elegant method, I can enjoy pomegranates each year at this time and think of him.
“its intriguing architectural form, reminiscent of a mosque or the onion dome of an orthodox church and topped with a crown as a flourish”
First slice off the top, by running a sharp knife around the fruit, cutting through the skin and then levering off the lid.
Secondly, make radiating vertical cuts through the skin following the divisions visible within the fruit – between four and eight cuts.
Thirdly, split open the pomegranate to create a shape like a flower and peel away the pith.
Leila’s Shop, 15-17 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP
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