Like most Americans, my first experience with figs was in the form of a cookie. Fig Newtons were one of the first “mass-produced” cookies, first made in 1891 and still popular today. This famous soft cookie with its fig jam filling was a favorite of my grandfather. I was never wild about them because I didn’t like the little seeds that got stuck between my teeth, but I still remember them fondly.
Many years later, after I’d moved to Alaska, I became aware that fresh figs were something very special. I had a friend in California who raved about the fresh figs he was eating from the tree in his yard. He decided to surprise me and mail me some. Unfortunately, by the time I got them and opened the box, they were a wretched, moldy mess.
It was perhaps another decade before I actually got to sample some fresh figs. They were even better than my friend had described! Luscious, and succulent, with an unusual texture: firmer toward the outside of the fruit, squishy and sweet in the center. Now I await the arrival of fresh figs each summer with keen anticipation, and can easily eat a pint of them in a sitting.
My high regard for figs was apparently shared by Stone Age humans. It has been recently discovered that figs were being propagated over 11,000 years ago, making them the world’s earliest cultivated food.
The season for figs runs from early summer to early fall. The most common variety you will see in local stores is the Black Mission fig. We also occasionally get green figs here, either the Kadota variety or Calimyrnas.
Calimyrna figs have an interesting story behind them. They are of the Smyrna variety of figs native to the Mediterranean area and were originally imported to California from Turkey over 100 years ago. The trees were planted and tended for 20 years. Despite being healthy, they never bore fruit.
The frustrated growers finally discovered that the Smyrna fig trees, which are female, only bear fruit when they are pollinated by tiny wasps. These wasps spend the first part of their life in the male tree, a non-fruit bearing “wild” fig tree called the caprifig. They carry the pollen from the male caprifig tree, where they hatch, to the Smyrna tree. Once the growers were able to establish caprifigs and their associated wasps to pollinate their trees, they bore abundantly.
Of all the common fruits, figs have the highest sugar content. Dried figs have more fiber than prunes, and more calcium than cow’s milk. Figs are said to aid digestion by soothing and cleansing the intestine. Fresh figs are exceedingly perishable and are available only seasonally.
When buying, look for plump figs that are a little soft to the touch. If they are starting to shrivel a bit they can still be quite tasty. If they are on the firm side, they will ripen if left for a day or two at room temperature. Don’t leave them too long though, or they will spoil!
The following is a recipe created by Thomas Keller, chef and owner of the the French Laundry in Nappa Valley, California, considered by some to be the best restaurant in America.
Herb Roasted Black Mission Figs with Prosciutto di Parma
12 large (or 24 small) ripe figs, preferable Black Mission
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
12 thin slices prosciutto di Parma
Preheat oven to 450. Place the whole figs in a 12-inch skillet. Add the rosemary, shallots and bay leaf and drizzle with the olive oil. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, over medium heat for 5 minutes. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 10 minutes, shaking the pan twice. Remove from the oven and arrange figs on 6 serving plates. Discard the rosemary and bay leaf. Whisk the vinegar into the skillet and cook over medium heat just until warmed through. Drizzle the figs with the liquid and drape the prosciutto slices over them. Serve immediately.