Yes, there’s more to figs than fig leaves and fig newtons. Figs epitomize the Mediterranean–its climate, its food, its way of life. Figs most likely originated in Asia Minor and are thought to be one of the few trees to survive the ice ages. 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 “Albee” 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. They don’t ripen once picked, so they must be at their peak when harvested. A short season plus difficulty in transporting make this delicate, highly perishable fruit a high-priced delicacy. 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 them 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. Trim and discard the stem, which can ooze a bitter liquid. 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!
PROSCIUTTO CRUDO CON FICHI
Serve this classic antipasto with the finest cured ham from the region of Parma.
8 ripe figs
12 paper thin slices of prosciutto crudo
sweet butter, optional
freshly ground black pepper
Arrange the slices of prosciutto on a serving platter. Wipe the figs with a damp cloth and discard the stem. Cut the figs downward from the stem end into quarters, leaving them attached at the base. Open them up like flowers. Arrange the figs on top of the prosciutto. Serve with bread and sweet butter. Pass the pepper mill for those who like a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper.
FICHI D’ESTATE CON MASCARPONE
This dessert can be prepared in less than 5 minutes and is a perfect ending to a summer meal.
fresh black or white figs
1 T. honey per 2 figs
fresh mint leaves
Beat the mascarpone with some heavy cream and possibly some sugar or honey to taste. The mixture should be a little less firm but not runny. Place the cheese in a mound in the middle of a serving platter.
The figs must be at room temperature or consider warming them in a 325°F oven for 5 minutes to bring out the perfume in the fruit. Cut the figs lengthwise into halves or quarters depending on their size. Arrange them in a pinwheel fashion outside of the cheese and along the rim of the serving platter. Just before serving, heat some honey to make it easy to pour and drizzle the warm honey over the figs.
Sprinkle with minced fresh mint leaves and garnish the platter with mint sprig tips. Serve each person one or two figs with a dollop of mascarpone cream on the side.
Fresh figs available at:
18 Parmenter St.