Those products are already part of many diets around world. However, unless you live in Mexico or one of its neighboring countries, you may never have tried cactus pear leaves or even heard of them. Actually, the cactus pear or prickly pear (officially called Opuntia but known as nopal in Mexico) is so much a part of the Mexican culinary tradition and culture that it appears on the country’s national coat of arms.
The legend of the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City, says that the god Huitzilopochtli told the Mexicans to establish their city where they found an eagle eating a snake while perched on a cactus. This is how they chose the valley where the capital is now located.
Today, the municipality of Milpa Alta in Mexico City is the main producer of cactus pear in this city of more than 20 million inhabitants. It is there that Anastasia Guzmán and her family grow prickly pear in an area of around 8 000 square meters.
Prickly pear cactus can survive in arid and dry climates, and for this reason, it is a very important crop for smallholder farmers and key for food security. This plant has excellent nutritional properties: its leaves have a high content of vitamin C and fibre, which helps digestion and also contributes to lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels.
Prickly pear cactus production employs six people from Anastasia’s family, or even more in the spring, when the mild weather makes new leaves sprout every day. But the price of cactus products is very unstable throughout the year. During spring, overproduction causes prices to drop up to 200 percent compared to winter months, the low production season.
To tackle this problem, Anastasia came up with the innovative idea of transforming her produce into other products to keep her income more stable throughout the year. "We process the leaves into a cookie in order to earn a little more," explains Anastasia while she prepares the dough for her cookies made with cactus and amaranth, another product originating in Mesoamerica.
Every week, Anastasia produces an average of 100 packages of cookies (each weighing 100 grams) and sells them in the Producers’ Market on Sundays and other special occasions. Alongside her, almost 50 agri-food producers from rural areas of the city sell their products in this market.
The Government of Mexico City boosted the Producers’ Market with support from FAO with the aim of bringing producers and consumers closer together to create shorter agri-food chains and foster a sustainable, inclusive and resilient urban food system.