To my mind the fig is the most sensual of all fruits. It is not just the beauty of a cut fig, it is the contrasting textures that make this fruit appealing: the silky skin, the soft flesh and the crunch of the tiny seeds. I am not alone with my fascination, the fig has preoccupied imaginations since ancient times: from stories in Greek mythology to the leaf that scantily covered Adam and Eve when they were banished from the Garden of Eden (artists have used the fig leaf to cover many-a groin since).
In summer I talked about the trend towards eating flowers in restaurants around Australia. It is a little known fact that the fig is actually a beautiful inverted flower (the crunch of the seeds is actually the small flowers as well).
Consequently all the pollen is inside the fig and there is only one wasp that will fertilise it. This wasp must wait until the fruit is perfectly ripe and the eye (ostiole) on the underside of the fig is large enough for the wasp to make its way inside. When determining whether a fig is ripe for eating we should do the same … turn a fig upside down, if the ostiole is large and almost exploding with the fruit and flowers inside it will be sweet and ready to eat.
Not only do they look good and taste great, figs are also really good for you. They are one of the highest fruit and vegetable forms of fibre and calcium. Look for figs that are plump and shiny, soft to the gentle touch (but not mushy), avoid any with bruises or soft patches.
A fig is a fruit that only ripens on the tree (not on a box in the supermarket or on your kitchen bench) and doesn’t travel well. Thus they are best eaten during their local season. Their delicacy is well recorded, for example when Cato the Elder was urging the Romans to destroy Carthage it is said that he produced a handful of fresh figs from the village trees, illustrating the town’s proximity and thus the threat to Rome.
In Australia we have two fig crops per year: the first in spring, and the second (and generally the more productive) in late summer and autumn. The fig is a versatile fruit that can be eaten at any time of day, in savoury dishes or sweet. Try figs for breakfast drizzled with honey and served squashed on toast with ricotta. Grilling or roasting a fig will bring out the natural sugars (sprinkle with a little caster sugar for a little extra caramelisation) and is lovely served alongside pork or duck to temper the richness of these meats. Fig jam is a fabulous friend for a rabbit terrine and works well served alongside a pungent washed rind or blue cheese.
Figs love – prosciutto, goat’s cheese, blue cheese, ricotta, honey, balsamic vinegar, duck, pork, game, ice cream, rabbit, cheese plates, anchovies, walnuts,
Cooking with figs
- Cut a big cross into the top of the fig (through the stem) and about half way down the fig, being careful not to cut through to the bottom. Give the base of the fig a bit of a pinch, so that the four corners open out like the petals of a flower. Nestle a nodge of blue cheese into the middle of the cross (you can roast or barbecue your fig at this stage). Drape with prosciutto and top with a generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
- For a simple dessert cut figs in half, drizzle with honey or a little caster sugar and roast in the oven. Serve with ice-cream.
- Make a simple salad with rocket, prosciutto, walnuts and fresh figs. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar before serving.
- In Corsica they eat figs squashed onto bread with anchovy. Make a rough anchovy paste by squashing a few anchovies with the side of your knife, mix in a little olive oil and spread thinly on some fresh baguette, squash a fig over the top and drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar.
- As the weather turns cooler and autumn turns to winter, you can continue to indulge in figs by adding some finely chopped dried figs to your porridge. Chop into quarters and stir into your porridge just as you begin cooking it (I am a believer in the half milk, half water version) … the little dried seeds create a lovely textural contrast with the porridge and the natural sweetness of the figs alleviates the need for too much brown sugar.