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Pomegranates At Leila’s Shop

November 21, 2019
by the gentle author

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 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

You may also like to read my other stories about Leila’s Shop

Vegetable Bags from Leila’s Shop

Barn the Spoon at Leila’s Shop

Leila’s Shop Report 1

Leila’s Shop Report 2

Leila’s Shop Report 3

Leila’s Shop Report 4

Leila’s Shop Report 5

How Leila’s Shop Became

24 Responses leave one →
  1. Polly permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Thank you. Always wondered how to do this properly.

  2. Robert permalink
    November 21, 2019

    I was in Jordan last week and I enjoyed freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. It was sour and refreshing under the hot Jordanian sun.

  3. Glenda permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Strangely I remember eating pomegranates as a child (I am 75 now) when we lived in Goodmayes, Essex….not a place exactly noted for its exotic fruit markets! Unfortunately I can’t remember the circumstances of how we came by them, I just remember that we used to cut the tops off and poke our little fingers inside to pull the seeds out one by one.
    My Mum used to work for a lovely Jewish family at the time, so wondering now if they may have been our source of supply.

  4. Stella Hardy permalink
    November 21, 2019

    As a small child in Cleethorpes I remember eating a pomegranate with a pin. I have no idea how my mother came across a pomegranate in 1950’s Lincolnshire. I also remember the huge amount of time it took to ‘spear’ each ‘jewel’ and eat my potion of the fruit which was shared between five of us.

  5. November 21, 2019

    Thank you. I too was instructed in the pin method and was less than impressed. My theory is that it was invented to shut children up and make the fruit last. I will give this method a go.

  6. Noelle permalink
    November 21, 2019

    This is very useful info! What a lovely set of recollections too. My father taught me the pin method, but this does look far more elegant. In central Athens, there are quite a lot of Pomegranate bushes in the ancient sites – it looks delightful.

  7. Paul Loften permalink
    November 21, 2019

    in the early 70’s I wandered abroad hitch-hiking with a backpack . I found myself on a kibbutz up a pomegranate tree picking pomegranates with an American fellow in the branches above me who loved to sing the Beatles songs at the top of his voice whilst working, nothing would shut him up . We picked all kind of fruit with our bare hands and often ate it on the tree but very crudely with teeth as cutters , so the pomegranates were very bitter and sweet . The fruit on the branches at the top with most exposure to the sun were always the sweetest . On that day whilst working in the tree with Steve singing Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds at full blast suddenly appeared low flying planes . It was not unusual to see them but the number of jets carrying bombs on their wings was non-stop. One after the other for hours. The sight and the tremendous noise stopped his singing as the jets were just a short distance over head you could see the pilot . It was a scary sight with the black loaded bombs so close to us, and we knew something was very wrong. We soon learned that it was the sudden outbreak of the Yom Kippur war in 1973 .

  8. November 21, 2019

    Thanks for this lovely piece! There are videos on YouTube which purport to show you how to do it, but I agree with Leila, slice the top and then separate the segments (but do it over a bowl so that you collect the juice). You might like this piece, which has my favourite pomegranate recipe at the end: And since I wrote that, I have grown some plants from seed – they are now about a foot tall. No flowers, but I live in hope!

  9. Sue permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Wow, thanks. I have always been in blissful ignorance about how to enter a pomegranate! I am sure the first time I tasted one was about 55 years ago. Perhaps they had just begun to be brought in to the UK?

  10. Micheal Pyner permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Thank you for this.

    I live in Granada in Andalucía and as you probably know Granada is the Spanish word for ‘pomegranate’. Indeed the fruit is omnipresent in Granada used as the symbol for the city and sitting atop of every bollard and many of the fountains…..

  11. Gary permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Pomegranates provided me and my brother and sister much merriment when we were young because we used to eat all the pips and gather them all in our mouths and then chase each other around spitting the pips at each other. We were also told that if we swallowed the pips a tree would grow out of our bums!

  12. Lyn Smith permalink
    November 21, 2019

    In 1960’s Lincolnshire, I too as a child was given a pin with which to enjoy the jewels of the pomegranate, shared with my sister. It was always at Skegness with my grandmother as I recall.

  13. Greta Kelly permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Thank you for this useful information. I like cooking Middle Eastern dishes. Now I know how to get the better of these luscious seeds!
    Had a hearty laugh when I read Gary’s last sentence!

  14. Debra Matheney permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Thanks. I was given a bag full of the lovely fruit, which I love, but have always struggled with how to peel. Will try this new method. In the meantime they sit in a bowl, a reminder that autumn is the best time of the year.

  15. November 21, 2019

    I just had my first pomegranate, and used this “bashing” technique.

    It worked fine, and seems easier than your sectioning approach.

  16. Pam permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Like Glenda, I too lived in Essex, Loughton to be exact and my mum used to buy them at the greengrocer in Debden Broadway. I am 71 and we always had Pomegranates at Christmas they are not such an unusual fruit for the small greengrocer to have on the shelves at this time of year. Must say how I enjoy reading the information you have gleaned from the people you meet. Thank you for reminding me of so many places I used to walk through in my life. Pam Bough

  17. froukje permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Pomegranates are plentiful this time of year in Southern California. Besides eating them plain I make a liquor from them with a recipe found in the December 2017 issue of Country Living. Delicious and well worth the effort. And like the writer, I always display a couple on my mantel shelf.

  18. Amanda permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Thank you for your pictorial step by step Pomegranate Ritual.
    Will try it instead of buying a punnet of ready to go pips to eat by the spoonful.

    l too enjoy the red ones on display and am proud of my water colour of a cut, open fruit revealing its ‘jewels.’

    Best is Gary’s hilarious use of the pips – but l’d thought only Irish Nannas had such scary warnings of consuming seeds.

  19. November 21, 2019

    Such Lovely Pomegranates, they are So Yummy!! Hers look the best I’VE SEEN!!!!??????????

  20. Judith Haxton permalink
    November 21, 2019

    Memories of my English mother….. pomegranates eaten with a pin. Thank you !!!

  21. Isabel permalink
    November 22, 2019

    I do love your stories – this was a special one. The memories of your father saying to eat pomegranates with a pin, delightful. So many appreciative comments. Love the one that the tree might grow out of your … Also the two up the tree with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and being interrupted by the planes 🙁

  22. Annie permalink
    November 22, 2019

    Like others who have commented, I remember you could buy pomegranates in Birmingham back in the 50’s, my mother used to buy us one sometimes – eaten with a pin of course!

  23. Emma permalink
    November 22, 2019

    When I was a child growing up in Devon (in the seventies), pomegranates would appear at this time of year and we used to eat them with a pin. It is a singularly unsatisfying method of consumption! I tried your method of eating the fruit last year and it is SO much better, apart from the fact that my pomegranate was so juicy that my kitchen looked like a charnel house afterwards. I’m very impressed by your spotless linen but will be keeping mine safely in the cupboard this weekend when I eat another one.

  24. Eric Forward permalink
    November 23, 2019

    What a lovely story. Interesting and perhaps useful insight into how to eat a pomegranate, but more touching that the fruit evokes memories of your Dad. Made me think of my Mum & Dad too. The dead don’t die, as long as we remember them.

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