Real Food Encyclopedia | Figs
From their leaves’ famous role providing cover for Adam and Eve’s unmentionables to the Newtons of your childhood, figs have a long and varied cultural history. Fresh figs are a sticky harbinger of late summer, both subtle and sweet to taste.
Also known as the common fig (Ficus carica), they are the fruit of the ficus tree, which is native to the Middle East. While there are other varieties of ficus, F. carica is the variety that produces the well-known fruit. It’s thought that figs were one of the first plants cultivated by humans. Their agricultural history stretches back at least 11,000 years to Mesopotamia in what is now known as the Middle East. And while we all know the story of Eve offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden, it was likely a fig that proved all too tempting.
Fun Facts about Figs:
- The fig tree is one of the two sacred trees of Islam.
- The fruit is actually an inverted flower.
- The Mediterranean variety has a co-evolutionary relationship with the fig wasp that goes back at least 80 million years. Without the help of the wasp, pollination and thus reproduction would not happen. The two need each other to survive.
- Because of the unusual way in which the fig is pollinated — the female fig wasp climbs through a tiny hole in the bottom of the fig called an ostiole so that she may lay her eggs in the fig, spreading pollen as she does — there is an urban legend that the many small seeds in the fig are actually insect eggs. Luckily, that’s not quite true. The fig wasp does indeed lay her eggs in the fig in an act called caprification, but she does so in the male caprifigs, which is different from the female figs that we eat.
What to Look for When Buying Figs
Look for soft but not mushy fruit that is indicative of ripeness and flavor. Hard fruit will not continue to ripen. If they have a sour smell, they are past their peak.
Figs come in both green varieties — such as the Kalamata — and dark purple or brown varieties known as Black Mission, Brown Turkey and Chicago Hardy.
Sustainability of Figs
Figs grow both in the ground and containers, making them a great choice for backyard gardens. Once planted, they need two years before they are ready to bear fruit. They also need full sunlight and well-drained, fertile soil that is slightly acidic. While the trees grow well in a climate keeping with their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origins, they can be grown in more temperate locations. Just make sure they are protected from harsh cold or winds as they will die in temperatures that fall below 20 F. In addition, they favor drier conditions over wet.
You can harvest the fruit of your fig tree when the fruits are soft and are easily plucked. The skin may split as it ripens on the branch — a sticky sweet sign that it’s ready for consumption. Note that the fruit will stop ripening once they are removed from the tree so be sure not to harvest too early.
Generally grown in California for the wider agricultural market, the first harvest of the season arrives mid-summer and starts arriving in supermarkets shortly thereafter. A second harvest occurs in late summer and into October. Black Mission figs, a variety synonymous with later harvests, are sought for their sweeter taste.
Since they are not monocropped or consumed in vast quantities, their agricultural production doesn’t have the same impact as fruits such as apples. They are rather hearty in dry conditions and therefore don’t require a massive input of water. For those who live in the right climate, fig trees grow nicely in backyards or on front lawns, or even in a pot on a terrace or front step.
Figs will keep for a week in the fridge in a container, but they are very delicate and should be consumed as soon as possible. If you have an abundance of figs, they can be dehydrated and stored in an airtight container for months.
Figs require little prep work for cooking other than a rinse and the removal of the stem. They can be roasted, baked into pies, tossed into salads, made into jam or stuffed in pork loins with herbs.
While there are many recipes for fig tarts and the like, sometimes it’s best not to fuss with what nature intended. Ripened figs are delightful unadorned but go to the next level with a small dollop of mascarpone cheese and a drizzle of honey. Other ideas include goat cheese instead of mascarpone, a slice of prosciutto and a pinch of minced rosemary.
Figs are a good source of Vitamin K and the minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium and manganese. In fact, they contain one of the highest sources of plant-based calcium. Figs are also a great source of antioxidants.
Top photo by Nitr/Adobe Stock.