Supermarkets and high street fruiters like to perpetuate a myth that all the best fruit comes out in summer. But we know better. Those of us who truly live by our stomachs and taste buds that is, know that, apart from a few cherries, berries and early stone fruit, the very best pluckable eating is to be had in autumn. Apples, quinces, pears, grapes, late peaches, and most importantly for the sake of this week’s column and my own predilections, figs, all reach their sugary, sensuous best when the days start to shorten and the leaves start to curl.
Being a bit of a bit of miserable bugger, I can usually find something to complain about with even the very best foods, but with figs I’m left scratching the grumbling recesses of my head and drawing blanks. The fig is a faultless fruit.
So maybe I’m being a bit gushy. Not everyone is fig-mad, but I’ve always acted like a one man fig marketing board and have every intension of treating the next 1000 words or so as one giant sales pitch. Just you see if I don’t win you over.
The fig, or Ficus carica, has figured into the human diet since prehistoric times. It was one of the plants that, through its easy going ways and delicious rewards, persuaded our ancestors to give up the whole nomadic thing, settle-down on the banks of the Euphrates and invent the lifestyle block. It’s easy to see the attraction to the agricultural virgin – figs grow almost effortlessly from cuttings (break-off twig, shove it in the ground), they are famously drought tolerant, criminally delicious, are packed full of dietary fibre and are a veritable cocktail of vitamins and anti-oxidants. So, not only do they taste good, they make you feel good too. Personally, I wouldn’t care if they were composed of pure fat and caused rectal leakage; I’d still wolf them down at every opportunity.
The fig family is enormous and diverse, with members spread far and wide around the globe- mulberries, breadfruit, jack fruit, noni – and that’s just a small scattering of the edible ones. Among the fig’s less palatable kin are rubber trees, strangler figs and the holy bodi tree.
Figs may look and taste great once they have ripened, but the journey from flower to fruit is a total freak-show. The actual flowers of the fig form and open (en mass) inside the juvenile fruit. In order for pollination to occur, tiny specialist fig wasps must crawl through the tiny aperture at the base of the fruit. Once inside they rush about (as much as you can inside a fig), laying eggs and disturbing enough of the pollen for pollination to occur. After this, their purpose is served and they drop dead – often inside the fig.
Fortunately for those of you who are now feeling a bit queasy, and wondering how many wasps you’ve eaten in the name of a sticky mouthful, all modern figs are self fertile. In other words, they are entirely wasp-free. If, like me, you have a perverse thing for roughing it food-wise, and you really want to get an idea of what our ancestors had to endure in this regard, try eating a few ripe Morton bay figs (yes they are edible). These are sweet, if a little gritty, and are usually crammed full of protein-rich wasp maggots and assorted corpses. I was supposed to be pushing the virtues of the fig, so I’ll dispense with the graphic biology and get back to the gush.
I’ve said it before in a previous column and I’ll say it again here – if you don’t have a fig tree in your garden, or in a tub on your deck, you deserve a good telling off. They are the easiest fruit to grow, seeming to thrive through abuse and neglect and are almost invulnerable to disease. The only real pests you’ll encounter are birds, who have an almost preternatural ability to find ripe figs. On a small tree their voracious appetites can lead to heart breaking disappointment in a few short hours. The sneaky little buggers will turn up at dawn, full of butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-beaks innocence, demolish your entire crop and then sit about in the trees smirking. Rosellas are particularly adept at bringing misery to the fig grower, and should be viewed with great suspicion whenever they arrive in your neck of the woods – no matter how charming they may seem. I’ve tried to convince my cat that Rosellas are not deadly, screeching sky demons (as she seems to believe) but delectable hook-beaked kitty-morsels. She remains unconvinced and wholly terrified of them.
Once your fig tree is a few years old it will produce far more fruit than you need and it becomes easier to let the bird have their fill. I only net (I use tulle – MUCH cheaper than real bird net) the best fruit and let the bastard birds gorge on the rest.
There are hundreds of named fig cultivars, but they all fall into one of two basic types – red fleshed and white fleshed. Skin colour isn’t a very reliable indicator of what lies beneath, so it pays to know your figs intimately. This difference in flesh colour isn’t just an aesthetic thing either; the two forms taste different too. White fleshed figs tend to be super sweet, and syrupy and at full ripeness almost collapse under their own weight. Red fleshed figs, while still sweet, have a distinct berry flavour and just enough acidity to counter the sugar.
The latter are by far my favourite of the two. They are best picked straight from the tree and devoured in situ. I actually prefer my figs just short of ripe- the extra acid and slight firmness is quite beguiling.
Apart from the slightly salacious joys of figs au natural, they can also be used in the kitchen in a myriad ways. As is my way, I tend towards the simplicity. I don’t like cluttering the perfection of figs or any seasonal produce for that matter with too much embellishment.
- I’m very partial to sliced red-fleshed figs served with malevolently ripe blue cheese- Gorgonzola Picante is just perfect – and a drizzle of honey. It’s awfully a la mode to do this one with an oozing chunk of honey comb, but I have no patience for wax-gummed teeth.
- Grilled figs are another favourite in our household – halve the figs sprinkle with raw sugar, a little orange zest and grill until sizzling and fragrant. Best served with good vanilla ice cream or crème anglaise.
- But it’s actually a savoury dish that is my favourite way of cooking with figs – it’s just about my favourite way of eating them too. The actual origin of this recipe is a bit vague – it came to me a few years ago by way of my mother, who maintains that it’s a traditional Provencal harvest dish. Considering the method and ingredients she’s probably right, but my mother has a patchy way of organising her thoughts, so who knows?
This dish has become something of an Easter tradition in our family and is – if you ask me – a bit more interesting than the standard Easter lamb. The recipe may look suspiciously simple, but that’s the whole point. It’s just a humble show case of outstanding produce and is as such, a true delight to eat.
Probably Provencal Figgy Fish
1 fillet per person of super-fresh white fish – gurnard or tarakihi are particularly good.
At least 2 ripe figs per person- sliced into quarters
½ bottle dry white wine
Generous handful of good black olives – Kalamata or Nicoise (not those dreadful pitted black things)
Olive oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Pre-heat oven to 180 Celsius. Flour the fish and lightly brown in a hot oiled pan. Scatter the figs and olives over the fish. Add the wine and gently shake the pan, rather than stirring which will demolish the fish. Season to taste and place in oven for approximately 15-20 minutes or until fish is cooked, the sauce is starting to thicken and the figs are slightly softened. Adjust the seasoning and serve with crusty, oven-warmed baguette. This is the sort of dish you can plonk in the middle of the table eat communally.
The fig season is short (with or without marauding parrots) and very, very sweet. Make the most of it.