Adriatic Figs bounded by Mission Figs

“The fool looks for figs in winter,” said the 2nd-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. But today, less than a week from the summer solstice, it’s not too soon to set our sights on figs.

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.

Whole fresh figs, ripe and unripe

The ripe Mission Fig on the left will have some give, when you squeeze it (not so its unripe partner)

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.”

Anita presents figs

                                    Anita points to figs that are ripe and ready to eat

When Anita subsequently ate the ripe fig (below, left), we asked for her verdict.

Ambrosia!” she exclaimed.

Halved fresh figs, ripe and unripe

             On the left, “ambrosia”; on the right, “may be salvaged by baking”

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
Greek honey
Whipped cream
Hazelnuts

  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. With a sharp paring knife, halve the figs from top to bottom.
  3. On a rack in a shallow baking dish place the figs, cut-side up.
  4. Bake the figs for about 20 minutes or until they puff up and look juicy.
  5. Divide the figs into four shallow dessert dishes, add a healthy dollop of whipped cream, sprinkle with hazelnuts, and serve.                                                                  
Yield: Serves: 4
Advance preparation: Figs can be baked several hours ahead.

Baked Fig Variations

“Baked figs are extraordinarily adaptable,” Anita explained. In the above recipe, “Greek yogurt can be substituted for whipped cream, walnut halves or slivered almonds can be substituted for hazelnuts, and of course the number of figs can be tweaked to meet your needs.”
“Baked figs can also serve as a savory side to meat or foie gras,” she continued. “Or, place a baked halved fig on a crusty crostini with a slice of prosciutto, drizzle with vinaigrette, and…yum!”

Are figs good for us? 

In moderation, you can’t go wrong!

syrup-of-figs-ad

    

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 Kitchenfood 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?

Queen_Victoria

      Queen Victoria, 1882

Size matters. At the website for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum we were amused to learn about a 19+-inch fig leaf created circa 1854 for Queen Victoria:

“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.”

bronze fig leaf

This 19-inch fig leaf was attached to Michelangelo’s ‘David’ in advance of royal visits

Photo Credits:
Ripe vs. Unripe Figs (5 photos): Liz Muir
Syrup of Figs: e-vint.com
Queen Victoria and Fig Leaf: Wikimedia Commons