Pomegranate: fruit of the gods

It seems both the Bible and the Koran were right - the exotic pomegranate is indeed a 'gift from God'. As supermarket sales of its ruby-red juice reach new heights, Ed Caesar charts the incredible blossoming of an ancient delight
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Everyone is doing it. Pomegranate juice has become the UK's fastest-growing fruit drink, with Tesco reporting that sales of their pomegranate product are up 300 per sent since the start of the year; that is 500,000 litres a week. Zoe Parker, a juice buyer for Tesco has never seen anything like it. "Britain has fallen head over heels in love with pomegranate juice," Ms Parker bubble. "Astonishing when you think that the fruit itself is quite hard to find in your average high street."

And it is not just everyday Joes who are quaffing pomegranate juice with reckless abandon; celebrities are doing it too. Jennifer Lopez is one reported "celebrity convert", as are Lindsay Lohan and Will Smith. While, for Desperate Housewives' Eva Longoria, pomegranate juice provides a welcome fillip after an exhausting schedule of jumping from one consumer bandwagon to another.

So what is this superfood said to do for you? Well, fight heart disease, protect unborn children from brain damage, lower blood pressure, reduce the signs of ageing, increase fertility, smooth, cleanse and protect your skin from the sun. And if that is not enough to convince you, laboratory research published recently suggests that the pomegranate also "shows promise" against skin, breast and prostate cancer, menopausal symptoms, ulcers, HIV, the herpes virus and erectile dysfunction.

I do not think it is too bold a statement to say that pome-granates stop you from dying. In America, at least, this seems to be the message. Across Los Angeles, giant billboards promoting pomegranate juice are emblazoned with the message "Defy Death". No wonder, then, that the pomtini - a pomegranate martini - is a favourite at Hollywood parties and the official cocktail at last year's Oscars.

Although the astonishing properties of the pomegranate emerged to modern wonderment early last year, there is nothing new in the world, and, as ever, the mythological Greeks got there first. Persephone, the goddess of agriculture, was famously offered a pomegranate by Hades, which, once eaten, meant she had to stay with Hades in the underworld for all time. Persephone held out initially, but in the end could resist everything except temptation, and scoffed the fruit in a weak moment. So the modern concept of the guilt-ridden snack was born, as a moment on the lips became a lifetime by the Styx.

In Greek mythology, the pomegranate symbolised both death and fertility, a confusing negative/positive message for ancient consumers and one which the Chinese pomegranate PRs were quick to put right by making the fruit a symbol of immortality and fertility some centuries later. Indeed, at Chinese wedding, the seeds were sugared and served to guests during the ceremony. And, when the bride and groom retired to the chamber to consummate their marriage, the assembled friends and family would throw pome-granates on to the floor of the bedroom to encourage a long and fruitful marriage, which must have been an unwelcome distraction for the couple at a tense time.

The pomegranate also features prominently in the Bible and the Koran, where it is called "a gift from God". Some Iranian scholars have even had the temerity to claim that the apple with which the snake tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden was actually a pomegranate. It is an extraordinary claim, and one which the even the briefest of glances at the Book of Genesis will put straight. One can only think that these scholars have access to some previously unseen footage they are waiting to unleash on an unsuspecting world.

The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, used to be buried with pomegranates. The loose thinking behind this custom was that the qualities of sexual energy and fertility that the blood red exterior and seedy interior of the pomegranate conveyed would help the interred Egyptian to be reborn.

Across the Gulf in Persia, King Cyrus, who created the Persian empire, once remarked that he wished to have a number of good generals, equal to the seeds of a pomegranate. It was a lowly request, and one which could have cut the Persian empire off in its infancy had his rivals but known of it. Centuries later, the Prophet Mohammed would urge his followers to eat the juicy flesh of the fruit, believing it would cure them of the negative emotions of hate and envy.

From such lofty origins in the ancient world, one might have thought that the only way was down for the pomegranate, but its stellar trajectory was only just beginning. In the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, pomegranates soon became the paracetamol of the Middle Ages, with healers using the fruit's bark, leaves, skin, rind and flesh as a cure-all for any and every kind of ailment. Nothing was beyond the pome-granates reach. Conjunctivitis? Two drops of pomegranate juice in the eyes before bedtime. Haemorrhoids? One vigorous rub of pomegranate bark on the affected region three to four times a day.

But, in a more scientifically rigorous age, where is the evidence that pomegranates can live up to their extraordinary claims?

Scientists at the Lipid Research Laboratory in Israel have confirmed that drinking pomegranate juice regularly can severely reduce the size of atherosclerotic lesions which narrow the arteries, and cause heart failure. They have also confirmed that, as a rich source of folic acid, they can actually assist the healthy development of babies. And they are full to bursting with antioxidants. Dr Richard Bogle at Hammersmith hospital, says: "Preliminary studies suggest pomegranate juice may contain almost three times the total antioxidant ability compared to the same quantity of green tea or red wine."

So the health aspect seems to add up, but how do pomegran-ates fare as something you might actually want to eat or drink? Eating a pomegranate generally revolves around desperately trying to dissemble the sweet fruit from its bitter pith, a chore which never delivers enough food to satisfy.

Gordon Ramsay is more eloquent in his inclusion of the nation's new favourite fruit in a dish. "Fucking revolting", spewed Ramsay into his pomegranate risotto in a tirade on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. But the master chef is in a minority. Sales of the pomegranate risotto at the Glasshouse Restaurant in Ambleside have rocketed since the outburst.

The chefs at the Glasshouse are not the only ones cashing in on the pop-star fruit. At the Fifth Floor bar in Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, pomegranate juice is now a popular mixer for cocktails. The juice, described by Tesco as "a delicious cross between cranberry and raspberry juice" is also making drinkers feel better about themselves, as Ben Hehir, manager of Harvey Nichols vertiginous drinking establishment, says. "Let's face it, when we're drinking alcohol, it's reassuring to think that we're doing ourselves good as well."

So forget what you have heard before. Pomegranates are the future. Not only do they cure everything, but they taste great, and mark you out as a consumer of rare discernment.

Next week, the walnut.

20 things you never knew about the pomegranate

1 The name originates from the Latin Punica granatum or "seeded apple"

2 Research suggests the juice may prove to be a treatment for erectile dysfunction

3 In Greek mythology, it symbolised death and fertility but the ancient Chinese believed the juice contained a "soul concentrate" which could confer immortality

4 Berber women would draw a circle and drop a ripe pomegranate in the centre. The number of seeds that landed outside the ring were thought to predict the number children they would have

5 The Prophet Mohammed said eating them would purge the bodies of longing

6 Granada was named for the fruit when the Moors brought it to Spain around 800.

7 To make Dale DeGroff's pomtini (a pomegranate martini which was the 2005 official cocktail of the Oscars) shake 1oz pomegranate juice; 1½ oz vodka ; 1½ oz grapefruit juice ; ½ oz fresh lime juice ; ½ oz simple syrup well with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Thin lime wheel garnish

8 Some scholars suggest Eve tempted Adam with a pomegranate

9 The Babylonians believed chewing the seeds before battle made them invincible

10 The Hittite god of agriculture blessed followers with grapes, wheat and pomegranates

11 The fruit gave its name to the grenade from its shape and size, and the shrapnel reminded soldiers of the seeds. Grenadiers were soldier who specialised in throwing grenades

12 The inner membranes are used as a skin wash

13 When Persephone, the Greek goddess of spring and fruit, was held captive in Hades she swore not eat food until her release. She could not resist the pomegranate but she left six seeds uneaten; these became our yearly cycle

14 The garnet is so named because of its pomegranate colour

15 One pomegranate delivers 40 per cent of an adult's daily vitamin C requirement

16 The Royal College of Physicians' coat of arms carries a pomegranate

17 Pommie, the slang for a Brit, comes from the shortening of pomegranate to Pummy Grant which altered to Jimmy Grant which was rhyming slang for immigrant

18 The pomegranate is native from Iran to the Himalayas and has been cultivated over the Mediterranean region since ancient times. The tree was introduced into California by Spanish settlers in 1769

19 The pomegranate developed into the orb that a monarch holds

20 Four 2,500-year-old pomegranates have been unearthed in the area of ancient Corinth