How do you turn prickly pears into candy?

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prickly pear cactus with fruit
Photo: Bildagentur-online / Contributor (Getty Images)

Ever have prickly pear gummies? They’re good. If you haven’t, imagine a chewy fruit candy with a taste that some people describe as watermelon, others like strawberries, dusted in granulated sugar like gumdrops.

Our local grocery store carries fresh prickly pear fruit (also called tuna in Spanish) on a regular basis and we get some now and then to snack on at home. The flesh of the fruit is a bright red and will stain your fingertips as you’re eating it.

 Atlas Obscura details the process by which the Arizona company Cheri’s Desert Harvest turns this fruit into delicious gummy candy.

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Prickly pear harvest season is in August. Lynette Alvarez, 17, and her aunt, Nellie Botello, wake up at 4 a.m. to get started picking the fruit in order to avoid the scorching red-hot afternoon sun. They use kitchen tongs to pluck the fruit from the cactus and must wear protective gear for their legs and feet, as rattlesnakes pose a constant danger. By 9 a.m., their entire group of pickers will have harvested up to two whole tons of the fruit, which will be pressed for its juice later. The barrel cactus from which the fruit is picked was nearly wiped out due to the demand for its pears, but it’s now sustainable.

When the fruit is brought to the processing facility, the company’s founder, Cheri Romanoski, processes them in a steamer. The fruit is then juiced using a wine press, then filtered twice and frozen. Once the summer picking season is over, the juicing equipment is swapped out for candy making equipment. Cheri’s typically makes up to 800 pounds a day. While the prickly pear candy is the most popular flavor, it also produces two other flavors, pomegranate and margarita (using tequila, triple sec, and lime).

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Once the candy is set, it’s cut with a guitar string cutter, dusted with sugar to prevent sticking, and packaged. Candy making has always been a really interesting process to me, so this is definitely worth taking the time to read, especially if you’re in the mood for sweets.