It Is Time To Fig Out
STANDING IN a grove of fig trees is like being surrounded by wizards. Their branches droop like beards, resilient from years of travel and adaptation.
They're round, ancient, and wise, but best of all, they make magic. Just twice a year, they quietly transform their violet-hued branches with wide, majestic leaves into long arms laden with plump, succulent fruit.
By biting into one, you can sink your teeth into the past.
The fig's roots are woven into early history. They were first harvested between 4000 and 2700 B.C., when they began their trek from Egypt and Arabia to Greece, Italy, Mexico, Virginia and - in the 16 th century - to California.
They appear in literature, folklore, and poetry from as far back as 700 B.C. The fig tree, Ficus Ruminalis, was named after the goddess Rumina, and believed by the Romans to be powerful enough to avert lightning.
Adam and Eve used fig leaves in place of loincloths, and an Egyptian tomb painting from 1900 B.C. depicted figs being harvested from a tree. The fruit is rumored to have been Cleopatra's favorite.
The fig, although we think of it as fruit, is actually a flower. It buds inward, creating thousands of tiny internal flowers that look like seeds.
California is lucky to have them. According to the California Fig Advisory Board, 99.9 percent of commercially available fresh figs (and 100 percent dried)
Are grown in California, where the Mediterranean climate is perfect for producing the seductive fruit. Fig trees grow all over the world, but weather prevents many of them from producing edible fruit.
But in California, beginning around June, the fig tree grows its first crop on branches from the previous year. At this time, fresh green baby branches can be seen sprouting from the old, speckled with tiny green nodules the size of a pea, some even smaller. This second crop ripens in August and lasts until September.
Randy Windham, former chef of Cafe Monk in San Francisco, loves figs for their versatility.
"I like the idea of biting into something fresh," Windham says.
"Especially Rick's figs" - referring to Rick Knoll of Knoll Farms in Brentwood - "that are alive and have energy. They can be crunchy or spread like jam."Windham prefers raw figs, often adding a sour component to balance the sweetness. He'll use them in a salad with peppery arugula and Point Reyes Original Blue Cheese, or cut them in half, adding goat cheese, olive oil, and a chiffonade of either basil or mint.
Michael Rivera, former chef at Belon in San Francisco and Mazzini in Berkeley, is currently writing a book on cooking Mexican food in the United States. Rivera says that Mexicans use an unrefined sugar, piloncillo, to preserve figs as well as other fruits. He says figs are used in a variety of Mexican dishes - both savory and sweet.
You can feel doubly good about indulging in this ancient delicacy - all figs are fat-free, mineral rich, high in iron, and have the highest fiber content of any fruit. They are also one of the most sustainable fruits. Every part of the tree - the fig, leaves and branches - can be used for something. Chez Panisse in Berkeley uses fig wood for the fires used to spit-roast and grill meats.
Fig leaves are available at farmers markets (Knoll Farms sells them at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza's Saturday morning farmers market; the figs are available at Monterey Market in Berkeley). They can be used as a flavor-enhancing cooking-wrapper for cheese and fish - imparting a sultry, tropical smell and taste that hints of almonds and coconuts.
"It really adds another dimension of flavor," he says.
California grows five varieties of figs - Calimyrna, Kadota, Adriatic, Mission or Black Mission, and Brown Turkeys. All figs are sweet, but vary in color, size and concentration. Some chefs say that a fig is a fig, as long as it's ripe. Some may be better than others for certain purposes, but you can feel comfortable using them interchangeably.
When buying, look for firm figs if you're not going to eat them right away - they'll ripen quickly. For immediate eating, choose softer figs. "Make sure they haven't been sitting on a grocery shelf for a long time - they'll begin to sweat and mold," says Ron Klamm, manager of the Fig Advisory Board.
"On the tree, figs will ripen in a couple of hours," Rick Knoll says. "You check on them in the morning and they're not ready. But by afternoon, they've exploded."If you've got more ripe figs than you know what to do with, try drying them yourself. In her new book, "Chez Panisse Fruit," Alice Waters says it takes just a week in a dry, sunny spot or twelve hours in a dehydrator.
Reach Melissa Kaman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
O Calimyrna: California version of Smyrna variety, which grows in Turkey, Greece and North Africa. Both varieties need a tiny insect called a fig wasp to pollinate and make fruit - this fertilization is said to give the Calimyrna its characteristically nutty flavor. Its skin is golden to light yellow, with amber flesh. It's the most common type of fig in California.
O Kadota: Dottato in Italy. Yellowish-green skin and amber to violet flesh.
O Adriatic: A Mediterranean variety, they have green-and-white-flecked skin and radiant pink flesh. Most often eaten fresh.
O Mission or Black Mission: Named by the Franciscan monks who first planted them in San Diego, they are light to deep purple, with a strong, concentrated flavor and a high sugar content. (Rick Knoll likes to put overripe Black Missions in the freezer - once frozen, they have a sherbet-like consistency.
Knoll says this is a result of this fig's high sugar content.)