Fig-ure it out – Virgil

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Fig-ure it out
Virgil Evetts

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.

Botanical stuff

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.

Growing figs

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.

Eating figs

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.

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24 thoughts on “Fig-ure it out – Virgil

  1. Oh wow I am totally sold on figs now and actually had some for breakfast!
    Also we love your writing style and laughed explosively several times as I was reading this article out to my wife (she driving us back from breakfast at our new favourite cafe “Heroes and Architects” where we had bircher muesli with figs and Honeycombe (happily blessed by an absence of waxed gums!).

    Thankyou for an enjoyable read! I’m definitely going to try that fig, fish and white wine dish! I’m also motivated to add a fig tree to my backyard collection of 17 blueberries, a blood orange, kaffir and Tahitian lime trees.
    I’m wondering if you might suggest some examples of red fleshed varieties for me (I live in Perth Western Australia).

    Kind regards

  2. Dear Virgil,
    Thanks for your article on Figs. I bought a small plant in December 2009. Planted it in a reasonably big planter box. Had 4 fruits in February 2010. They were not as sweet as it was described to be. This season there were lots of fruits, but they all dropped prematurely. So far about 50 fruits have dropped. there are still few left on the tree, but I doubt they will survive to edible stage. So all in the tree had about 80 fruits but not one got to ripe/edible. I am in Auckland, right in the city. You have any idea why the tree aborted all its fruits? Thanks for your help. Cheers!

    • Hi Emily
      I would guess lack of water is probably the issue. Figs need plenty of water when fruit are forming, and in a pot/planter it’s very hard to keep up. Chances are the plant is root bound too- this happens very quickly with figs, although it doesn’t actually affect fruiting, just plant size.
      Are the leaves slightly yellow? That’s a good sign of water stress. If you can get it in the ground I’d almost guarantee you’ll have better results. Although sold as good candidates for tubs, it’s really only a temporary solution.

      • I’ve just brewed up a seasonal favourite – figs in honey (adapted from Elizabeth David who got it from Eliza Acton)
        Equal weight figs (quartered) and honey (not manuka – use something milder) plus juice and some of the zest of 1 lemon to every 500 g of fruit, and thin strips of locally-grown fresh root ginger. Blanch figs in boiling water, and pour it off. Simmer figs and honey with other ingredients for a couple of hours with the lid on the pot, by which time the figs should be becoming transparent. I then put them in 1 pint preserving jars and seal, then keep jars in fridge once opened. They last for at least a couple of years, with the flavour maturing, and are particularly good with fig and honey icecream.

  3. Good read :) Stumbled across this while hunting for information on when the fig season starts. I’ve been waiting patiently for Wellington retailers to start selling figs this year, and can’t wait to try that recipe. Thanks for the article!

  4. We’re just south of Lincoln in Canterbury. I had put some in the hot water cylinder cupoard and they tasted horrible? We still have some on the tree but the birds have given them a good battering so it looks like I’l have to wait to next year!

  5. Its getting pretty late for them to ripen now. Where in NZ are you? Unfortunatly they will not ripen off the tree. They can be used for jam making if they are still hard- assuming they have started to colour up inside. Alternativly, chickens are quite fond of unripe figs!

  6. Hi,
    We have a small fig that has alot of figs on it now & I have just tried one. Do they ripen & get sweeter after being picked? And can you just dry them inside you hot water cylinder cupboard? Also is now a good time to pick them?



  7. The reason figs are so pricey is that they are very tricky to get to market in good, ripe condition. Never the less it is possible and I would guess that the returns would be quite high. Apart from birds, they really don’t have a lot of pests- certainly nothing compared to stone and pip fruits. The restaurant and hotel market would be where most cultivated figs end up end up in NZ, I suspect. I’m not sure if the there is a fig growers collective but I do know that the Tree crop association of New Zealand have a number of commercial fig growers among their numbers and a lot of hands on local knowledge is available through them. Don’t feel bad about jamming those figs- that’s called diversifying! In a commercial setting that’s exactly how you make money- have a backup plan for when the fruit don’t ripen or reach retail grade. Thanks and Good luck!

  8. Glad I found this. What mine of info. We have 2 trees, one doing better than the other. We picked about 2 kilos yesterday, some ripe, some not quite, but birds were starting to eat them. They are dry inside, so we decided to make Jam, Fig and Port jam to be precise. Then, when at Supermarket last night, saw the price of Figs on Sale, and couldn’t believe it. $70 per kilo. Yep, $70. I looked at hubby, and said we have just cut up $140 worth of figs for jam!!! Damn, we will be eating gold. In the future we will also be drying them. Have thought it might be a good idea to get into them commercially. Something to think about perhaps. Not sure where to go for info. (That’s how I cam across this, while searching) LOL

  9. Fig Jam – I’ve just made a batch using some frozen figs. Weight for weight sugar and fruit, some lemon juice and some crystallized ginger if you like it. I soften the fruit with a little water first then puree it with the blender so I get a smooth jam. Then I add the sugar and lemon juice and boil til it gels.

  10. I do believe that the best way to eat a fig is straight from the tree with dappled autumn sun on your face. Just bliss.
    Incidentally, we had the above fish dish for the mothers birthday dinner last night. Once again, bliss.

  11. I love figs too, my friends (non fig eaters) cannot understand my drooling over them. I guess they have never had a ripe one picked off a tree.
    My mum has a tree, so last weekend I climbed the damned thing, to see if I could get any non bird pecked figs. Some of the blighters had hollowed out the figs, leaving a beautifully formed outside, and my efforts of stretching and swinging off branches and getting my legs scratch paid off by finding over 20 undamaged figs, for me to enjoy. I gave some to my mum, but she did say I shouldn’t be climbing a tree at my age – come on, I’m not 50 yet!
    Have fun

  12. I dont have a fig jam recipe myself, but I would guess that it would be a weight for weight with sugar sort arangment and perhaps add some lemon juice. Good luck!

  13. Hi Virgil, I was given a tiny Fig tree for my birthday last month so one day will be picking my own, in the meantime I buy them from a roadside stall in Waikanae. Could one of your readers give a recipe for Fig jam please, my husband is very partial too. Also Lynly could you share your Honey and Polenta Cake recipe please. I am wheat intolerant and always keen to bake other recipes so we can all enjoy my baking.
    Thankyou so much.

  14. Hi
    Not all figs go brown when ripe, they can be brown, green stripy, purple and other colours in between. They do all get a sort of tight shiny look when ripe and a slight bloom [like grapes]. They should be quite soft at this point. I find that latex seeps from the stem no matter how ripe they are. I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from eating unripe figs. It’s more likely that you are either allergic to figs or coincidentally got food poisoning. For your sake I hope it was the latter!

  15. Hi,
    I have a large fig tree with lots of figs but one year when I was enjoying them every day I ate some and was very ill. A friend suggested that they were not yet ripe. Asking everyone has given me these answers, figs are ripe when soft, brown, and even when you pick them no white oozes from the top. Can you advise me when best to pick them please?

  16. Una, they make a very good jam and can be preserved whole in sugar syrup for use in desserts year-round. I rather fear that freezing would result in a pulpy mess when thawed out, but I havnt tried so you never know.

  17. Wonderful to read about figs and will definitely try the recipe. Any info on freezing figs would be great, or other ideas about being able to cook with them all year.

    Many thanks

  18. They may just need a a good water. It depends where you are in NZ, but they should still ripen. Figs need a bit of water during ripening but not too much or they will rot. Has the tree produced edible fruit before?

  19. I have a great fig tree which is fruiting with green fruit that turn a reddish brown on the outside, but inside the fruit are white and dry.What do I need to do to make them edible.

  20. Wow- Im glad youre still enjoying it Karen. I had completly forgotten Id posted it before. I agree with you Lynly figs are uber sensuous. The first draft of the above article had a paragraph that examined this further but my in-house editor said it was too saucy!

  21. I too adore figs, there is something sensuous and tempting about figs, perhaps stemming from the biblical reference.

    Did you know that the young leaves can also be utilised? Wrap them around thick fillets of fish and bake to enjoy a unique coconutty flavour.

    I made a honey & polenta cake recently and served it with caramelised figs (fry face down in brown sugar in a fry pan) and runny honey drizzled on top….

  22. Hi Virgil

    I love that fig dish of yours – have been making it in the fig season since you first posted it on the forum in ’03 I think. I’ve adapted it slightly (ever so slightly!) and saute fish, remove from pan, and simmer wine with fig quarters very gently until the liquid reduces a bit. I then put the fish back, spoon figs over, add olives and shake over heat gently until fish is heated through. That way the fig flavour is even more intense. I’ve also used pickled walnut slices instead of olives – delicious!