Yes, there’s more to figs than fig leaves and fig newtons. Figs epitomize the Mediterranean–its climate, its food, its way of life. One of the few trees to survive the ice ages, figs most likely originated in Asia Minor. There is said to have been a fig tree in the Garden of Eden, and in fact, the fig is one of the most talked-about fruits in the Bible. Whether or not it was the “forbidden fruit” is debatable, but it is definite that the fig tree provided the first clothing. Figs are grown all over Italy, often intermixed with grape vines and olive, almond and citrus trees. Thanks to the hot climate, Sicilian figs are perhaps the most luscious of all. Anyone who has been to Italy in the late summer would surely remember eating figs, especially if snatched from roadside trees. If you haven’t eaten a fig straight from the tree, you don’t know what a really good fig tastes like! There are about 700 fig varieties, but only about half a dozen are grown in California, our main source of fig supply.
Look for fresh figs at the greengrocer from late June to early October. “The first to come into the market in late June will be the black Mission figs which are a deep purple with pink flesh. They will be followed by what are often called the green figs: Kadota figs with their thick skin and creamy amber green color; Calimyrna figs, noted for their delicious honey-nut-like flavor and tender, golden skin; and the Adriatic fig with its golden-green skin and pale pink flesh,” said Bruce “Albee” Alba of Alba Produce on Parmenter Street. “The North End favorite is the Calimyrna,” said Albee, “Probably because it is the most sweet and succulent, reminding people of their summer in Italy.” The popular Calimyrna is the Smyrna variety that was brought to California from Turkey in 1882, and was renamed Calimyrna in honor of its new homeland.
No need to touch figs to see if they are ripe. Look for unblemished fruit which exudes beads of honey-like nectar at the blossom base. Ripe figs are extremely delicate, so take great care not to squash the figs on your way home. Use figs as soon as possible, but if you must store them, carefully lay on a paper towel, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to three days.
Fresh figs are most delicious served on their own, warmed by the sun, eaten slowly and savored. Some people peel figs, or discard the skin, but it is perfectly edible. As an antipasto, fresh figs are often paired with Prosciutto crudo or salami. Try them wrapped with a very thin slice of prosciutto crudo, prosciutto affumicato, or pancetta and grilled over the barbecue. They can also be stuffed with a mixture of goat, mascarpone or gorgonzola cheese combined with chopped walnuts, almonds or pistachios. Poached in dry red wine with a hint of cinnamon or nutmeg, they make an excellent accompaniment to grilled sausages, liver, duck and game. For dessert they are fabulous when simply paired with mascarpone, fresh mint and honey. They can also be poached in sweet wine, baked in a crostata or rolled in sugar and baked in the oven until caramelized. Baked figs are fabulous on vanilla or pistachio ice cream.
Buon appetito e buon estate!