Since the birth of the Great Water Rate Debate, esteemed Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning has had a thorn in his side: tiered rates (the introduction of which in Santa Fe resulted in a 30-percent reduction in water use in one year).
He has argued repeatedly that such rates are unfair (a socialist at heart, I am, though, pleased that he considers rationing a viable strategy, which no doubt others might think “unfair.” But then, as Sister Mary Ascension used to say, “Fair? Whoever promised you fair?”), and he’s delighted by a recent court decision against such tiers.
Though they’re now water under the bridge, the drip, drip, drip of comments on tiers and increased water rates hasn’t stopped. Saving too much water, he worries, will lead directly to the cactification of our fair green city.
I’m flummoxed by such blatant cactus-phobia. His vision of lawns pulled up and replaced with spiny succulents seems so apocalyptic (apoplectic?) that I can’t help wondering if an early and violent encounter with a giant saguaro (which can absorb 200 gallons of water during a deluge — whatever that is) has left permanent scars, figurative as well as literal.
My own early childhood — in, I confess, Southern California — has led me to cactus-philia. I love the drama of them, the enormousness of them, the spare beauty of them, the primordial shapes of them, the extravagance of their rare blooms — and of, course, their sheer ability to thrive in desert and drought.
Dunning often argues against these fabulous creatures by slur — they’re “non-native,” he claims. While I don’t know the history of cactus in our county, I do know that there are dozens of varieties native to California, even to coastal and forest areas (visit Cactus Jungle and Nursery on Fourth Street in Berkeley for examples).
And they certainly like it here — witness Cactus Corner and the fabulous blooming giant on Catalina Drive — and have become upstanding, outreaching, water-conserving citizens. Which is more than you can say for rice — and for certain of their human counterparts.
(Being a walker, I could give you addresses of miscreants — you know, the folks who water at all times of the day and leave the sprinklers on until our precious resource puddles into the street for blocks. But I won’t. This time.)
Another nice thing about some cacti: In a dire drought, you can drink the juice, preferably fermented, and thus live happily to welcome another dawn. (Tequila is made from agave cactus, which while not technically a cactus is equally drought-tolerant.) Some cacti even produce hallucinogenic liquid (peyote comes from the San Pedro cactus), which might make you happier still.
You can eat cactus, too. The briefest online search uncovers recipes for dishes like pintos with cactus, cactus-corn salsa, nopalitos (diced nopales, the paddles of the prickly pear cactus) with tomatoes and onions, cactus salad, prickly pear jelly and, my favorite, cactus fries with avocado sauce. You can even put in an order for “The Prickly Pear Cookbook.”
And where there is food, there must be drink to accompany it. I might well choose my twice-a-year pint of pale ale or even a tequila cocktail with my nopalitos and goat cheese tacos, but since the drought may, we read, be with us for decades, I need a more sustainable plan. So I’m collecting wines from grapes grown without a drop of Davis water to accompany my growing pile of cactus recipes.
(If you’re not yet a cactus convert, these wines will go equally well with myriad appetizers, with the season’s vegetable bounty and with fish or light meat dishes.)
I’m envisioning a nice dish of nopalitos first sauteed in olive oil with garlic and red onions, then cooked until tender with a couple of chopped heirloom tomatoes and some fresh oregano. I’m planning to pair this dish with a recent discovery that I tried last night with goat cheese, spring garlic, and amaranth greens over penne — the 2015 Moulin de Gassac Guilhem Rosé.
From the Languedoc region (where rain occasionally falls), it’s 50 percent granache, 30 percent carignan and 20 percent syrah — a typical southern Rhône blend. It smells and tastes of wild strawberries, citrus and peppery spices. It will cut right through the meaty cactus and add to the happy sunshine of fresh tomatoes.
The top reds and whites of this family estate, by the way, are practically cult wines, and the village of St. Guilhem le Desert (there must be cacti growing there), I read, is “one of the most stunningly beautiful villages of Europe.” The Gassac vineyards are (and have always been) entirely organic, which makes it all the more surprising that this gem only costs about $10 to $12 (Whole Foods).
My second recommendation is Champagne. I love the idea of Champagne with a rustic, unpretentious dish like cactus. The bubbles will complement any chiles or pungent spices that go so well with nopalitos. If, like me, you can only afford the real thing on a rare occasion, there are, of course, hundreds of wonderful sparklers for not much more than the rosé.
My first choice here would be a sparkler from a mountainous desert area near the town of Truth or Consequences, N.M. — Gruet. Gilbert Gruet made fine-quality Champagne in his native France before emigrating to New Mexico, and he and his family have continued the tradition in their new home.
I hope they dry-farm; for all their water-saving ways, New Mexicans are having the same drought we are.
Besides a few pricey vintage bottles, Gruet produces several non-vintage sparklers, including blanc de blanc, blanc de noir, brut and demi-sec. Every time I taste one, I think, “Oh, it’s not going to be as good as I remember it.” But it always is. At around $15 a bottle (Nugget, Co-op), they’re all serious bargains. Your cactus will love them.
When you’re ready for your semi-desert landscape, the folks at our own Redwood Barn Nursery — fellow cactus-enthusiasts — can guide you to the area’s best performers. If you don’t want to grow your own, you can often get nopales (spines already removed) at the Farmers Market from the Cadena Farms.
Towani has amaranth greens right now (as well as the similar and equally wonderful lamb’s quarters), if you, like Bob, are not quite ready for prickly pear.
By Susanna Leonardi