It wasn’t until about high school, while traveling abroad to Greece, that I discovered the precious gift of fresh, delectable figs.
There is nothing like the unique taste and texture of fresh figs. They are lusciously sweet with a texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin, and the crunchiness of their seeds. Indescribable.
After my fresh fruit discovery in the Mediterranean, I wondered why I had never been exposed to this amazing delicacy before…
I wondered, wondered, wondered until just last week. I created what I felt to be an utterly amazing, mouth-watering experience in my Bacon Basil Fig and Balsamic Pork Tenderloin recipe and was insistent upon sharing the sensational flavor with my curious and lingering parents. Both enjoyed the flavor combination, but when offered a bit of an intensely perfect and freshly ripe warm-weather fruit, both rapidly declined with disgust. Aha! The precise reason I lacked exposure to this treat was merely due to their own personal distaste.
Ho hum. Such is life. I suppose that must be the reason why I never encountered a Brussels sprout on my plate until off and living on my own. What I was missing for so many years!
In any case, the delightful fig:
Figs are not only the main ingredient in a very popular cookie, the fig bar, but are a culinary delicacy par excellence. Part of the wonder of the fig comes from its unique taste and texture. Figs are lusciously sweet and feature a complex texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin, and the crunchiness of their seeds. In addition, since fresh figs are so delicate and perishable, some of their mystique comes from their relative rarity. Because of this, the majority of figs are dried, either by exposure to sunlight or through an artificial process, creating a sweet and nutritious dried fruit that can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Figs grow on the Ficus tree (Ficus carica), which is a member of the Mulberry family. They are unique in that they have an opening, called the “ostiole” or “eye,” which is not connected to the tree, but which helps the fruit’s development, aiding it in communication with the environment.
Figs range dramatically in color and subtly in texture depending upon the variety, of which there are more than one hundred and fifty. Some of the most popular varieties are:
- Black Mission: blackish-purple skin and pink colored flesh
- Kadota: green skin and purplish flesh
- Calimyrna: greenish-yellow skin and amber flesh
- Brown Turkey: purple skin and red flesh
- Adriatic: the variety most often used to make fig bars, which has a light green skin and pink-tan flesh
Figs can trace their history back to the earliest of times with mentions in the Bible and other ancient writings. They are thought to have been first cultivated in Egypt. They spread to ancient Crete and then subsequently, around the 9th century BC, to ancient Greece, where they became a staple foodstuff in the traditional diet. Figs were held in such esteem by the Greeks that they created laws forbidding the export of the best quality figs. Figs were also revered in ancient Rome where they were thought of as a sacred fruit. According to Roman myth, the wolf that nurtured the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, rested under a fig tree. During this period of history, at least 29 varieties of figs were already known.
Figs were later introduced to other regions of the Mediterranean by ancient conquerors and then brought to the Western Hemisphere by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. In the late 19th century, when Spanish missionaries established the mission in San Diego, California, they also planted fig trees. These figs turned out to be inferior in quality to those that were imported from Europe, and it wasn’t until the development of further cultivation techniques in the early 20th century that California began focused cultivation and processing of figs. Today, California remains one of the largest producers of figs in addition to Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Not just for cookies, not just for fruit and cake. So much more than just a Fig Newton.