You will not find a traditional farm house in Mallorca that does not have its field of Higos Chumbos cactuses in the back of the kitchen door. They belong to the Opuntia family, of which there seem to exist some 200 – 250 species. The cactus is indigenous to the Americas and can be found there in places such as Canada and Nebraska, in the North, and Mexico and Patagonia, in the South.
In Mallorca, pigs were traditionally kept in these cactus fields because pigs do not seem to mind the thistles. Pigs eat both, the young cactus blades as well as the ripe cactus fruits. But if handled carefully, the cactus fruit or prickly pears are also fit for human consumption. Of course, you can find the ripe prickly pear for sale in your local farmers’ market, as well as in some of the better supermarkets.
The Mallorcan farmer would not remove the prickly pear from the cactus, but would remove the skin with his Trinxet pocket knife and only then cut off the fruit to eat, thus avoiding any contact with the prickly spines.
I understand that the young Opuntia blades (Nopales) are also edible. There certainly exist some Nopales recipes, albeit for Mexican cuisine, in dishes such as huevos con nopales (eggs with nopal), or tacos de nopales (nopal tacos). Nopales are also an important ingredient in the New Mexican cuisine. I have not tried any myself, though.
The prickly pear is eaten raw or can be used in a refreshing drink or smoothie. In Palma de Mallorca, I have seen Higo Chumbo icecream. I have also heard of Higo Chumbo jam, possibly mixed with figs (higos in Higos Chumbos is Spanish for figs).
The fruit is also a favourite in the Sicilian cuisine, where it is called ficurinnia.
As always, there is evidence of medicinal use of the Opuntia cactus. Most species of Opuntia seem to contain a range of alkaloids in ample quantities. There is also talk of some use in diabetes, but I feel not competent enough to be more specific.
The gel-like sap of Opuntias can apparently be used as a hair conditioner.
The coat of arms of Mexico depicts a Mexican golden eagle, perched upon an Opuntia cactus, devouring a snake. According to the official history of Mexico, the coat of arms is inspired by an Aztec legend regarding the founding of Tenochtitlan.
The 1975-1988 variant of the coat of arms of Malta also featured an Opuntia.