From their leaves' famous role providing as cover for Adam and Eve’s unmentionables to the Newtons of your childhood, figs have a long and varied cultural history. They are curiously exotic in their ripened state, plucked from trees with wide, iconic leaves. Fresh figs are a sticky harbinger of late summer, both subtle and sweet to taste, and they pair well with a delicate slice of prosciutto and a glass of wine — a grown up alternative to the cookies of youth
A Brief History
Also known as the common fig (Ficus carica), this week’s Real Food are the fruit of the ficus tree, which is native to the Middle East. While there are other varieties of ficus, F. carica is the variety that produces the well known fruit.
It’s thought that figs were one of the first plants cultivated by humans. Their agricultural history stretches back at least 11,000 years to Mesopotamia in what is now known as the Middle East. And while we all know the story of Eve offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden, it was likely a fig that proved all too tempting.
Perhaps owing to its biblical ties to shame and nudity, the fig has reputation for lasciviousness in Judeo/Christian folklore. But if you're a Buddhist, the fig tree (F. religiosa) is a symbol of spiritual growth, for it was under the ficus that the Buddha received enlightenment while meditating. It is an odd duality that the fig would figure negatively as the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, but the tree of enlightenment for the Buddhists.
As an aside, I spent way too much time tumbling down an internet rabbit hole while researching the, shall we say, less polite references to figs. Although this is not the place to recount the fig’s ancient association to obscenity and female genitalia, it seemed too fascinating to pass up a brief mention. I instead invite you all to Google for yourself.
- The fig tree is one of the two sacred trees of Islam.
- The fruit is actually an inverted flower.
- The Mediterranean fig, such as the Smyrna fig, has a co-evolutionary relationship with the fig wasp that goes back at least 80 million years. Without the help of the wasp, pollination and thus reproduction would not happen. The two literally need each other to survive.
- Because of the unusual way in which the fig is pollinated — the female fig wasp climbs through a tiny hole in the bottom of the fig called an ostiole so that she may lay her eggs in the fig, spreading pollen as she does — there is an urban legend that the many small seeds in the fig are actually insect eggs. I know, gross. Luckily, that’s not quite true. The fig wasp does indeed lay her eggs in the fig in an act called caprification, but she does so in the male caprifigs, which is different from the female figs that we eat. Whew. So, no, you're not crunching on fig wasp eggs.
- That said, there are self pollinating varieties of the fig tree, usually the kind that you can purchase from a local nursery, that do not require this co-evolutionary relationship. However, the most popular variety of figs grown in the US, the green Calimyrna, does require caprification in order to pollinate. More on this here and here.
Figs grow both in the ground and containers, making them a great choice for backyard gardens. Once planted, they need two years before they are ready to bear fruit. They also need full sunlight and well drained, fertile soil that is slightly acidic. While fig trees grow well in a climate keeping with their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origins, they can be grown in more temperate locations. Just make sure they are protected from harsh cold or winds as they will die in temperatures that fall below 20 F. In addition they favor drier conditions over wet.
You can harvest the fruit of your fig tree when the figs are soft and are easily plucked. The skin of the fig may split as it ripens on the branch — a sticky sweet sign that it’s ready for consumption. Note that figs stop ripening once they are removed from the tree so be sure not to harvest too early.
Generally grown in California for the wider agricultural market, the first harvest of the season arrives mid summer and starts arriving in supermarkets shortly thereafter. A second harvest occurs in late summer and into October. Black Mission figs, a variety synonymous with later harvests, are sought after for their sweeter taste.
As figs are not monocropped or over consumed, the agricultural production of figs doesn’t have the same impact as, say, its Biblical counterpart, the apple. Figs are rather hearty in dry conditions and therefore don’t require a massive input of water. But it is best to eat local figs when you can, as shipping figs from California’s San Joaquin Valley (or from abroad) to distant points around the US does add a lot of food miles and thus petroleum use.
For those of us who live in Brooklyn, an area with a rich immigrant history, late summer is known as fig time in the borough of Kings. Those who are lucky enough to have a backyard, fig trees planted by long ago Italian immigrants still bear fruit. According to a recent New York Times article, the trees survive the urban winter because of ambient heat trapped in the concrete — heat that shelters trees that would otherwise die off in the cold.
Figs are a good source of vitamin K and the minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium and manganese. If fact, figs contain one of the highest source of plant based calcium. Figs are also a great source of antioxidants.
What to Look For
As most people don’t have figs growing in on their property, alas, most of us will have to seek them out in our local markets. Look for soft but not mushy fruit that is indicative of ripeness and flavor. Hard fruit will not continue to ripen. If the figs have a sour smell, they are past their peak.
Figs come in both green varieties such as the Kalamata and dark purple or brown varieties known as Black Mission, Brown Turkey and Chicago Hardy.
What To Do With It
Figs will keep for a week in the fridge in a container, but they are very delicate and should be consumed as soon as possible. If you have an abundance of figs, they can be dehydrated and stored in an airtight container for months.
Figs require little prep work for cooking other than a rinse and the removal of the stem. They can be roasted, baked into pies, tossed into salads, made into jam or stuffed in pork loins with herbs.
Figs with Mascarpone and Honey
While there are many recipes for fig tarts and the like, sometimes it’s best not to fuss with what nature intended. Ripened figs are delightful unadorned, but go to the next level with a small dollop of mascarpone cheese and a drizzle of honey. Split your figs in half and top the rose colored fleshy inside with the soft cheese and honey. Other ideas include goat cheese instead of mascarpone, a slice of prosciutto and a pinch of minced rosemary.