A friend brought me three pomegranates, a traditional New Year’s gift in Greece. I can’t remember how many years ago I last ate one. When I was a kid, we used to eat the seeds with a pin, which seemed like great fun. Apart from the fat shiny russet globes warming up my winter kitchen, it’s been an intense pleasure spooning out the garnet seeds to eat raw, add to yogurt or scatter onto salads.
I can’t agree with Jane Grigson, who calls them ‘unrewarding fruit’: no more than a closet of juicy seeds, each one gold in a deep pink jelly, the sections held firmly in a yellow astringent pith. She quotes an extract from André Gide’s Les Nourritures Terrestres (1895), a long poem in praise of pleasure, dedicated to the pomegranate.
A little sour is the juice of the pomegranate like the juice of unripe raspberries.
Wax-like is the flower
Coloured as the fruit is coloured
Close-guarded this item of treasure, beehive partitioned,
Richness of savour,
Architecture of pentagons.
The rind splits; out tumble the seeds,
In cups of azure, some seeds are blood;
On plates of enamelled bronze, others are drops of gold.
The story of Persephone tells us that the maiden, abducted to the Underworld by Hades, made the mistake of eating six pomegranate seeds while she was there. According to a law decreed by the Fates, this meant she had to stay there for six months; only then could she return to the surface of the earth for the other six months of the year. Her mother Demeter’s grief explained the alternating seasons – decay, barrenness, growth and harvest – the cycle of life.
Image from collaboration with Hexham Embroiderers’ Guild for Hexham Hospital
Pomegranate (Punica granatum) literally means ‘seeded apple’ and it’s easy to see how eating them might feel like sympathetic magic. Winter will pass. Things will start growing again soon. Early agricultural communities, after many thousands of years’ hunter-gathering, utterly dependent on a good crop, created stories and rituals (like that of Persephone and Demeter within the Eleusinian mysteries) to affirm the rhythms of their labours to survive and flourish. What do we look to encourage us through the winter? A well-stocked larder, a good book by a roaring fire? Don’t we all have our own talismans to help us get through and out the other side of the dark?
In some Jewish traditions it is thought the pomegranate was the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the Garden of Eden. In the light of the vast mythological lore surrounding this remarkable fruit, that would make sense. In Tamil the name for it – maadulampazhum – means ‘woman’s mind’. The seeds (between 200 and 1400 in one fruit) represent the multifaceted way the female mind works, apparently unfathomable to the male, as the pomegranate seeds are hidden by the skin. Persephone, Demeter and Hecate were all seeds of the same fruit but it fell to Eve to claim free-will for human beings, making grown-ups and gardeners of us all.
The summer had been ended for some time
If not officially
Before the shock of greyness, blanketing,
Pressed the blind season up against our faces.
Winter, my God, a familiar I had forgotten:
That’s all I needed.
The portcullis dropped and locked around our houses.
The long worthwhile campaign to build the town up
Surrounding it with fruitful fields was seen
To have been only a little flourish; frivolous –
The house of straw of the pig before the wolf.
‘The dark is back’ the eyeless morning said..
From Persephone by Jenny Joseph (Bloodaxe 1986)