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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Ancient Pomegranate

The now nearly forgotten pomegranate was once one of the proudest and most venerated of fruits. Slightly larger than an apple, with its protruding calyx lending it the appearance of a dullish Christmas tree ornament, the pomegranate has figured prominently in myths and religions of many cultures.

Ancient Greeks believed that the fruit was a gift from Zeus, as a reward for their devotion. A more dramatic Greek myth suggests that it was related to the story of Persephone, queen of the underworld and goddess of the reviving crops. When Pluto abducted Persephone to the underworld, her mother, Demeter, goddess of nature, grieved the world into famine. Zeus intervened, forcing Pluto to return her to earth, provided she had not eaten in the interim. But Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds to quench her thirst. As a compromise, Persephone was to spend six months on Earth, followed by six months in Hades. Demeter agreed to provide weather for each, giving the world winter and summer.

In ancient Rome, brides wore headdresses made from pomegranate twigs. The juice was considered a cure for infertility. And the fruit itself, tough on the outside but sweet within, came to symbolize priests, outwardly harsh but indulgent underneath.

Arabs and Bedouins believed that the pomegranate tree, which can grow to almost eight meters and can live more than 200 years, possessed a power over evil, and that sleeping under one guaranteed their safety during the night.

The pomegranate is the oldest symbol of Judaism, predating the Star of David by hundreds of years. Pomegranate-shaped pommels are used to cover the wooden handles of the Scrolls of the Law that are read in synagogue.

Wild pomegranates are said to contain 613 seeds, one for each of the commandments in the Old Testament.

Many Christian and Jewish mystics today believe that the pomegranate tree, in fact, is the true Tree of Life, and that it was a pomegranate, not an apple, with which the serpent tempted Adam and Eve.

As with many mythic and religious icons, the pomegranate frequently surfaces in art, architecture, medicine and culture. More recently, pomegranates have graced numerous canvasses, including those of Leonardo da Vinci, Pieter de Hooch, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali.

Recent studies have suggested that pomegranate juice lowers the risk of heart disease, helping to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which contributes to the clogging of arteries. A report earlier this year in Nutrition Science News, purports that the antioxidants in pomegranates, bioflavanoids, are three times as active as those in red wine or green tea, suggesting that the fruit may be a factor in hindering disease and slowing the aging process.

Pomegranates contain large amounts of potassium and vitamin C. Herbalists have used it to treat any number of inflammations, from rheumatism to sore throats, and it has been applied in massage to rejuvenate aging skin. A mild astringent and refrigerant, it is also used to reduce fevers. The tree's bark is said to be effective in purging tapeworms. In India, the rind, often combined with opium, is used to cure diarrhea and chronic dysentery.

These days, relegated to a small portion in supermarket produce section, much of the grandeur has left the regal pomegranate. But none of the taste, and certainly not the sensual ambrosia. The name of this fruit is derived from the Latin granatum, meaning fruit of many seeds. Pomegranate seeds are often eaten fresh. In many tropical countries, they are popular both as an ingredient and as condiment. They enhance both the appearance and taste of fruit salads, mixed salads, soups and sauces, cheeses, vegetables, poultry, fish and seafood. In Europe, the fruit is best known for its juice, which is sold as grenadine syrup. Grenadine is used to prepare beverages and cocktails, ice cream, sorbets and other desserts.

Eating a pomegranate i's an intense labor of love, requiring time and patience. The fruit itself is wrapped in a thick, purplish-red leathery skin which is inedible, while the seeds inside are protected in chambers formed by a creamy, unpalatable membrane. Pomegranates disdain utensils that other fruits so willingly give themselves over - spoons, paring tools, melon bailers, zesters, what have you. The juice stain clothing and tablecloths with a reckless zeal. But their bounty, hundreds of ruby-red, dark pink or pinkish seeds each holding a precious drop of juice is pleasantly refreshing with a tangy-sweet flavor. They beg the use of bare hands, both during extraction and consumption, making them disorderly, yet sensual, exotic, visceral and seductive. They are well worth the effort.

The pomegranate grows in most tropical and- subtropical climates. Although the tree can adapt to different climatic conditions and soil types, it grows best in regions with cold winters and very hot summers. The main producers of pomegranates are Iran, India and the United States.

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