California produces 98 percent of figs grown in the U.S., and the first California Mission Fig crop (which is harvested for fresh, rather than dried figs) matures in late June. A second, longer fig season begins toward the end of summer and runs through the fall.
A fascinating fruit
According to the Valley Fig Growers, a large cooperative in Fresno, California:
- Fig trees have no blossoms on their branches; instead, figs blossom inward (it’s the tiny blossom that forms inside the fruit that produces the edible seeds)
- The dark purple figs known as ‘Mission’ figs are so named because priests at Mission San Diego originally planted them in California in 1769
- Fig Newtons, which were introduced to the U.S. market in 1892, represent the nation’s first commercial fig product (In an April New York Times article reporting on the rebranding of ‘Fig Newtons’ as ‘Newtons,’ we learned that this cookie originated in a bakery in Cambridge, and was named for the city of Newton)
“Nothing beats a fresh fig!”
So asserts Jules’ Owner-Chef Anita Baglaneas, and she should know. Having grown up in a rural village on the Greek island of Samos in the eastern Aegean, Anita first-hand and early-on experienced the joys of plucking and eating figs fresh from the tree. “I knew at first touch if the fruit was ripe, because when it was, I barely had to touch the fig to make it drop into my hand!”
“Of course, here in New England,” Anita continued, “it’s not so easy to find properly ripened figs. Too often–even at upscale markets and in pricey restaurants–figs that are offered up as ‘fresh’ and ‘ripe’ turn out to be disappointingly tasteless and hard. At Jules Catering, though, we never serve a fig before its time!”
How do you distinguish ripe from unripe?” we wondered.
“I’ll show you,” Anita replied.
Ripe vs. unripe figs
“If you have no choice but to purchase figs in tightly sealed packages that prevent you from ‘copping a feel,'” Anita laughed, “well, then Buyer Beware! Figs don’t ripen off the tree, so to make sure that you get what you pay for, you really need to get in there and very gently squeeze.”
What’s the best way to eat a ripe fig?
“Where I grew up, the custom was to peel figs,” Anita continued. “But when figs are ripe and the skin is tender, it’s absolutely delicious and okay to simply wash figs, cut them in half, and jump right in.”
When Anita subsequently ate the ripe fig (below, left), we asked for her verdict.
“Ambrosia!” she exclaimed.
What can we do if the figs we have purchased are less than perfectly ripe?
In response to our query, Anita on-the-spot improvised the following recipe, which she said will “maximize juiciness and concentrate flavors.”
Baked Fig Recipe–Dessert
12 ripe (or, if necessary, not quite ripe) figs
- Preheat oven to 400°.
- With a sharp paring knife, halve the figs from top to bottom.
- On a rack in a shallow baking dish place the figs, cut-side up.
- Bake the figs for about 20 minutes or until they puff up and look juicy.
- Divide the figs into four shallow dessert dishes, add a healthy dollop of whipped cream, sprinkle with hazelnuts, and serve.
Advance preparation: Figs can be baked several hours ahead.
Baked Fig Variations
Are figs good for us?
In moderation, you can’t go wrong!
For a more up-to-date take on the health benefits of figs, we turned to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, which notes that:
- 8 ounces of figs provide 30 percent of recommended daily fiber
- Figs are sufficiently high in calcium to promote bone density (eating 1/2 cup of figs offers the same amount of calcium as drinking 1/2 cup of milk)
- Figs lower both insulin and triglyceride levels
In the classic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, food scientist Harold McGee writes: “Figs are remarkable for containing very large amounts of phenolic compounds, some of them antioxidants,” and, “certain phenolic compounds appear capable of helping us fight cancer by preventing oxidative damage to DNA-damaging chemicals, and by inhibiting the growth of already cancerous cells.”
Enough about figs! What about fig leaves?
“The story goes that on her first encounter with the cast of [Michelangelo’s] ‘David‘ at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned. It was then kept in readiness for any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks.”