Figs

Figs

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

There can be few greater pleasures in life than a fig. Not a dreary, brown, medicine-sweet disc of pressed dried fig, full of tiny little teeth-sticking seeds, but a perfectly ripe fresh fig, split to reveal its inner red secrets and glistening with a dew as sweet as honeysuckle.

The fig is regarded by many as a quintessentially Mediterranean fruit, but is believed to have originated in Asia Minor. Archeological remains suggest that fig trees were first found in Persia, Syria and Turkey, and then spread west along ancient trade routes to Greece and Italy and eastwards to India and China.

Figs – both fresh and dried – were an important part of the diet of the early peoples of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. The very high sugar content of dried figs has made them an ideal source of concentrated energy in lean times and a syrup of figs was used in many countries as an early sweetener.

Figs have long been celebrated for the simple and exquisite pleasure they provide. Baskets of figs have been found in Egyptian tombs, where they were left to accompany pharaohs on their journey to the after-life. They were a favourite fruit of the ancient Greeks, who considered them a gift from the gods and fed them to their Olympic athletes. They were popular in the Roman empire, where they were grafted and cultivated with great success – figs are portrayed on the walls at Pompeii, and the Roman gourmet Apicius, writer of the first known recipe book, is said to have fed the best imported Syrian figs to his pigs to sweeten their flesh!

Figs and fig trees feature in the myths and legends of many civilisations from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome to India, East Asia and even North Africa. The fig is also firmly entrenched in Christian symbolism. It is the first tree mentioned in the Bible, and its leaves were used by Adam and Eve to hide their nakedness. Fig leaves have been used as a symbolic device by artists ever since, to disguise nudity in their art.

Selecting and storing figs

In Australia, many people are lucky enough to have a hardy old fig tree in the back yard and, come late summer, may gorge to their heart’s content. In fact, the battle is on to get the fruit before the birds do and before the fruit becomes overripe. Most figs available commercially are black (or purple), green or white, but they are not sold by variety. The green ones are usually the first to reach our fruit stalls, followed by the larger deep-purple figs with their luscious deep-crimson flesh. Fig trees often crop twice, and true fig fanciers will often hold out for the smaller late-summer fruits with their intense honeyed perfume.

Whichever variety of figs are available, it is important to select fruit which are unbruised and unblemished. This is probably more important for figs than just about any other fruit. One of the reasons for their high cost is that they are delicate and highly perishable. Furthermore, they don’t travel well, and once ripe they ferment rapidly. Figs need to be handled with a little tenderness, as they are so fragile. Reject any which are bruised or are sticky and weeping – they are almost certainly overripe and may even have started fermenting.

If possible, eat figs on the day of purchase, and certainly keep them refrigerated until you need them. Remove them from the fridge ahead of time, though, as chilling them dulls some of their flavour.

As in ancient times, the best dried figs are still imported from Turkey – the best being the legendary Smyrna figs. Turkish figs are large, plump white figs which are dried in the sun. Over time the sugar in them rises to the surface and gives them a characteristic white surface bloom. Dried figs may be bought loose or packed in little cardboard cartons (pressed figs), but the very best come strung on raffia loops like a chunky modern necklace.

Using figs

As with so many of the best things in life, a perfect fig really requires little tricking-up. Many are thin-skinned and don’t require peeling, but if you like a fancy presentation you can cut a cross in the skin, intersecting over the top of the fruit, and peel the skin away from the flesh in petals.

Dried salty hams, such as prosciutto or pancetta, are natural allies of the fig, as are many cheeses. Soft, creamy cheeses, such as a fresh goat or soft blue cheese, are delicious with fresh figs; whereas hard sharp cheeses, like a good cheddar, are particularly good with the big dried Turkish figs.

Fresh figs make a perfect and easy dessert. Split them by cutting through the flesh to the base (but leave it intact) and eat exactly them as they are. If they are slightly less than perfect, then you might like to sprinkle them with a few drops of rosewater and a drizzle of honey. Or shake over cinnamon dust and caramelise them under a very hot grill (or with a blow torch) and serve with thick yoghurt or mascarpone.

Recipes in this Chapter

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