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While November may be cool, May in the Mediterranean can be relentlessly hot. But the gods have stayed the blinding sunlight with a soothing antidote: the luscious orange blossoms of the pomegranate. This is the season when, in ancient times, the wheat was harvested, thus the flowering of the pomegranates marked both an end to spring and the beginning of summer.
Perhaps for this reason the pomegranate was associated with the ancient Greek cycles of winter and summer. On Cyprus, where according to legend thegoddess Aphrodite brought the fruit from Phoenicia, the pomegranate was a symbol of love. Pomegranate trees dedicated to Aphrodite were planted in her temple precinct, which was at that time the most important temple of love in the ancient world. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the pomegranate blooms at the same time as the rose, another plant dedicated in ancient times to the goddess of love.
The Romans called the pomegranate the mala punica (Phoenician apple). Thus it would seem that at the core of the ancient myths lies a thread of truth about the origins of this delightful fruit. It grows as a small tree or shrub, which at one time sprung wild from Northern Syria into central Asia. Botanists have determined that the shrub was first domesticated during the late Bronze Age, which means that people have enjoyed its fruit since pre-Biblical times. And not just the fruit, for they used the flowers in botanical medicines as well as in making a red dye; the bark of the plant was helpful in tanning the finest grades of leather.
Groves of wild pomegranates can still be found in Iran, but the Persian fruit tends to be small and seedy. This variety is best suited for making jelly because it has very little pulp in the arils, that part of the fruit that most people refer to as the seeds. But in fact, the seeds are inside the arils, which starts the inevitable discussion: Do you swallow the seeds or spit them out? While that may be a matter of personal preference, most health care professionals will tell you that the seeds may aid digestion.
The aril serves several nonmedical purposes: In India, dried arils are ground to make a red condiment called anardana. In Iran, arils are crushed and the juice is cooked down to make a dark syrup called robb-e anur, used in Persian cookery to color rice dishes and also to give the rice a characteristic flavor—tart and refreshing, especially when tempered with walnuts.
Once the pomegranate proved to be a popular fruit with ancient peoples, its cultivation spread westward into the Mediterranean and eastward into southern China. The Spaniards were the first to introduce it to the Americas, and when the missions were established in California in the 1700s, pomegranates were among the first plants brought from Mexico by the friars. California is still the main center of pomegranate cultivation in North America.
Everywhere that the pomegranate has gone, it has found a ready place in local cookery. The recipe treatment generally falls into three broad categories: raw arils used like chopped fruit or garnish, dried ground arils used to flavor and color foods, or the juice cooked and used in soups, syrups and sauces. In flavor, the raw juice tastes like a cross between blood oranges and highly concentrated cranberry juice, so a little bit goes a long way, and sugar is almost always used to soften its tartness. However, its unusual flavor provides a guide for experimental cooks because where they might use the flavor of oranges or cranberries, pomegranates will work just as beautifully.
Throughout the Middle Ages, pomegranates were highly valued during Lent because they could add both visual interest and unusual flavor to the meatless cookery prepared during that time of year. Medieval physicians did not know that pomegranates are high in vitamin C or that they are a good source of antioxidants, but they did know that pomegranates worked against certain diseases, and for that reason the fruit appeared regularly in medical books of the period.
Today there are literally hundreds of varieties of pomegranates. Some are yellow skinned when ripe, some are rose pink, others wine red. Most commercially grown pomegranates have been bred to be juicy, and there are even seedless varieties, although they are not readily available in the United States.
The lesson for vegetarian cookery is that a pomegranate offers more than just exciting flavor—it is truly a health food whose value has been proven for several thousand years. And it is surprising to see what a range of dishes this versatile fruit can grace. The best advice: Buy the fruit as soon as it is in season in the fall, then juice it in a fruit juicer. The juice can be frozen and used as needed all year round.
Most of us think of pomegranates as an adjunct to Christmas—and it is a seasonal fruit available fresh only later in the year in the United States—but year round there is nothing like the refreshing tang in lemonade, salsa, guacamole or salad. And with winter’s chill, welcome a bowl heaped with the ruby-red tones of pomegranates.
Note: For pomegranate information, contact the California Pomegranate Council,
Note: Starred recipes reprinted with permission from California Pomegranate Council.