Admittedly you’re not going to find one growing in your neighbour’s back garden, but winter is the prime time to find ripe pomegranates in the UK, says Simi Rezai
As with any indigenous crop, folklore is built around the pomegranate and, depending on the time of year it is harvested, it is used in coinciding celebrations. Pomegranates are known to have originated in Iran where they symbolise fertility, prosperity and invincibility! They are referred to in poetry, depicted in carpets and in all other forms of Persian art.
In Iran we call them anar and those grown in the cities of Saveh and Neyriz, available in the bazaars from mid autumn, are the most prized.
We used to come home from school in our new uniforms to find Dad had bought a big bag of anar. Mum would wash them and then we would be allowed to eat them in the kitchen. My sister and I would first squeeze the whole pomegranate gently to crush the arils (as we would a lime), before piercing the fruit and sucking out the juice. Needless to say, there would be a big mess because they’d usually burst.
Pomegranates are a significant element in the winter solstice celebrations known as Shab e Yalda, around 21 December. During this time of year, the sandwich shops and snack bars offer fresh pomegranate juice or ab e anar. Every year I invite friends to my home in Bath to observe this ancient tradition, as we did, in my home in Tabriz in the northwest of Iran. We spend the evening eating, reading poetry and playing games. We snack on nuts, watermelon, boiled dried broad beans, grape pickle and pomegranate arils daneh. There are many types of pomegranate varying in flavour and colour of skin and arils. These range from light pink to black red. Some years Mum would decorate a plate using these different coloured arils.
Pomegranate arils are used to decorate food, providing bling to any dish, while the molasses have now been popularised by TV chefs in the UK. Pomegranate molasses are known as rob e anar, a pomegranate puree or paste that is used as a sour element in Persian cuisine. The most popular dishes using rob e anar are feseenjoon, a walnut stew eaten with rice, and Osh e Anar, which is a herb, pulse and pomegranate molasses broth. Rob e Anar is used in various ways across the different regions of Iran. In Gorgan, near Mashad, it is used as a condiment and put on fried chicken. Arils are dried and powdered and used as a garnish instead of sumac. My mother’s family would extract dyes from the skins to colour wool for garments. The various hues from pomegranate dye are also used in carpets.
A note from Team Crumbs…
We at Crumbs love pomegranates to spruce up salads (sweet or savoury), to bejewel a warming winter tagine, or squeezed into a morning smoothie. It is a ‘superfood’, after all, thanks to all those antioxidants and vitamins.
There are many different methods recommended for releasing the precious ruby jewels from their white prison. Old-fashioned cooks might call for a pin and a painstaking extraction of each individual gem. Some modern chefs ask for each pomegranate half to be spanked across the bottom with a wooden spoon; where upon a shower of the gems will rain out (not to be recommended over light or porous worksurfaces). At Crumbs we would suggest slicing the fruit in half and, using your hands, gently break the fruit into quarters, as explained further here. The seeds will begin to break away naturally and you can use your fingers to help any stubborn ones along. Discard any of the bitter white membrane.