The Wonder of the Fig

By Stacy Ladenburger / Photography By Stacy Ladenburger | October 01, 2013
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Fresh figs are a wonder—plump and tender, startlingly sweet, with tiny seeds that pop in the mouth. The fig’s first season, which takes place in June and July, seduces but does not satisfy; blessedly, a second, autumnal harvest comes like clockwork in September to satiate our whetted appetites.

Until not so long ago, I could only dream of fresh figs, absent as they were from the stalls of the farmers markets in my home state of Michigan. Longingly, I perused recipes calling for them in the most varied and delicious of preparations: roasted, poached, tossed in salads, paired with soft cheeses, baked in pies and tarts, cooked down into jams and chutneys.

My husband and I moved to California last summer, just in time for the fig’s second season, and I am happy to report that all of my fig dreams have been fulfilled. And though my unbounded enthusiasm may amuse native Californians, I am far from the first to marvel at this fruit. It was held sacred in many ancient traditions, representing such values as prosperity and fertility, and is mentioned in the Bible and the Koran.

Figs have been around for thousands of years; archeologists believe the fig tree may have been among the first cultivated plants. Figs arrived in California in the mid-1700s, when Franciscan monks began growing them at the mission in San Diego. As the trees were planted at other missions along the Camino Real, the Black Mission fig acquired its name. Other varieties grown in California today include Adriatic, Brown Turkey, Calimyrna and Kadota.

Botanically, the fig is a fascinating specimen—not actually a fruit but an inflorescence, or a cluster of flowers. The little round seeds encased within the fig’s smooth skin are the true fruits, called drupes. In the wild, fig trees are pollinated by way of an incredible symbiotic relationship with tiny wasps that crawl inside the fig to carry out mating rituals and, in turn, fig pollination.

Figs are one of the richest plant sources of fiber. They are, consequently, known for their laxative effects. Figs also contain calcium, iron, potassium, manganese and vitamin B6. They are a great source of antioxidants and energy.

When purchasing figs, look for those that have bulging but unbroken skin and a wrinkled stem. Once picked, figs last only a few days. Store them in the refrigerator, spread in a single layer on a paper-towel-lined plate.

In those long-gone days of reading fig recipes without the luscious fruit at my disposal, I encountered the same sage advice again and again: When presented with a perfectly ripe fig, one must eat it out of hand. And it is true; there is no better way to enjoy a fig—though a bit of soft cheese and a glass of wine could not be easily denied. If a more refined presentation is called for, these three elements can be combined quite simply, as in this recipe for Wine-Poached Figs on Ricotta Toast.

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