The pomegranate tree is a delightful specimen in any garden, and at this time of year its amazing fruit is ready to be harvested.
It is a fruit that fascinates me on every level. From its etymology to its symbolism, it is full of wonder. Its English name derives from the Old French pome grenate, meaning an apple with many seeds. In Christian art the fruit often represents resurrection and life everlasting, and it is often associated with fertility and sexual passion. It pops up everywhere from Persephone in Greek mythology to Peter Greenaway’s movie The Draughtsman’s Contract.
As a tree in the garden, it is more interesting than majestic. It is a tree to plant for posterity as it can live and bear fruit for a couple of hundred years. It has a shrubby, spiny habit that can look marvellous as a hedge or a little copse of greenery. The foliage is glossy green and the flowers bright red, and as the leaves fall in autumn, the tree is left clinging to its crop of Christmas bauble-like fruit.
As a plant that has very ancient roots it has wound its way through classic and modern culture. A native to modern day Iran and northern India, it has held fast in one of the cradles of mankind, spilling out across the globe, carried by travellers from long ago. It swaddles its sweet seeds in a hardened suitcase that all but guarantees safe passage to another destination.
The fruit itself is where the real wonder happens for me – two skins encasing the hundreds of sparkling red jewels within. There’s the red pericarp on the outside and the soft, white, pillowy mesocarp within, protecting the seeds, or arils. As a cook and a gardener I am often fascinated by the extraordinary lengths some plants go to in making their seeds safe and comfortable. From the Doona-like inside of a broad bean pod to the cushioned and highly organised inside of a pomegranate.
And it’s that safekeeping of the arils that makes their removal most vexing. If you have a pomegranate tree or are lured by a cheap tray of them at the greengrocer at this time of the year, the question is: What is the most time-efficient way to remove the seeds and separate them from the cream membrane that organises them within the fruit?
I remember working at Pearl, a restaurant at the turn of the century, and needing to prep boxes and boxes of pomegranates. As the year 2000 predated the use of a smartphone that can answer most how-to questions, the removal of the arils for juice would take me many hours. Now a quick Google search can enlighten you instantly.
The best method I have found is to score the skin around the fruit, then twist to separate into halves, giving each half a firm squeeze to loosen the arils. Then hold the fruit cut-side down in the palm of your hand, fingers outstretched, over a bowl. Strike the outside of the fruit firmly with a wooden spoon. The arils and juice will tumble out between your fingers. It is a strangely satisfying procedure – the muted violence of the strike of the wooden spoon erases hours of labour from the past, and the fruit running through your fingers gives a sense of prosperity and achievement.
Once all the arils are released, then there are the choices of what to do with them. The actual “jewels” are a perfect garnish for salads and meat dishes and I love them with Middle Eastern-style lamb and chicken dishes. They can also be turned into that wonderful product, pomegranate molasses. The commercial varieties are a muddy brown colour that are a far cry from the fragrant, vibrant version you can make at home. The molasses can be used in dressings, in desserts or even simply spooned over ice-cream. It will keep in the fridge for up to six months.
Now, with my new-found surety of tapping the seeds out, I can be found making as little as one pomegranate into molasses for instant use.
Makes about half a cup
Remove the seeds from the pomegranate by the method explained.
The seeds now need to be crushed for their juice. I do this by pushing them through a fine sieve with the end of my wooden rolling pin.
They can be put in a food processor and pulsed lightly to start the process. (Do not overprocess them – if you start damaging the white seed within, the juice will be bitter.) Then place them in a sieve and push through. Once all the red juice is separated from the seeds, discard the sieve contents.
Place the juice in a heavy-based stainless-steel pan, bring to the boil and reduce very slowly until the mixture is syrupy and coats the back of a spoon. Place in a clean jar and keep refrigerated.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Roll out the arils".
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