A Fabulous Fig Feast
The high summer heat of August brings many garden treasures to fruition, from tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers to peaches, persimmons, and plums. Amongst all this bounty, the first ripe figs stand out for their luscious, juicy tenderness. Growing up in New England, I only knew dried figs, which came in tightly pressed rounds threaded on thick string. Dense, chewy and sticky as honey, they only appeared (at our home, anyway) during the winter holidays.
When I spent a few years in Italy, I discovered a new world of fresh figs, meltingly tender, and succulent. I vividly recall picking small green figs so ripe they burst open at a touch, the soft skin parting to reveal lush pink inner flesh, the effect weirdly both sensual and somehow suggestive of invasive surgery. More formally, raw figs came to the table dressed in balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, draped with prosciutto, or dabbed with soft goat cheese and thick fruit conserves. Figs were also baked with chestnuts, broiled with savory cheeses, or grilled and brushed with honey.
A Fruit As Old As Time
For obvious reasons, ripe figs have delighted diners for thousands of years, and were among the earliest to be domesticated. Largely native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, figs have gradually been bred to withstand cooler climates. Today, these hardier fig varieties may be grown throughout the United States, though where summers are cool, figs are most productive if espaliered against a warm south-facing wall. As well, many kinds of fig can flourish in containers, since restricting root growth promotes heavier fruiting. Given the protection of a greenhouse or heated sunporch, figs may be grown successfully even in harsh environments.
Though figs are pollinated by tiny wasps, Smyrna and Calimyrna figs need a non-fruiting pollinator partner called a caprifig, or wild goat fig tree, in order to set fruit. Self-fertile or common figs produce well without pollination, often in both an early ‘breba’ crop that forms on old wood and a later, larger crop on new wood from the current season. Popular common figs include cold-hardy types like Chicago, with intensely flavorful, medium-sized purple fruit, and Brown Turkey, which bears large, succulent brown fruit. Other notably cold hardy figs include Adriana, Brooklyn White, Celeste,
Dark Portuguese, Paradiso White, and dusky Violetta.
Italian Honey Figs
My personal favorites are the Italian Honey figs, of which there are several varieties. My young Lattarulla, the classic form, is espalliered on wire mesh on my south-facing deck, where it seems quite happy so far. Lattarulla delightfully combines a slightly tangy green skin with sweet, rosy innerds. A fairly recent import from Sicily, Peter’s Honey is also exceptionally flavorful, with pale green skin and honey-tinted flesh. Both need some protection from frost in order for their early breba crops to ripen well, so give them a warm spot against a south-facing wall if possible. In the ground, these fellows can exceed 20 feet, though when grown for production, hard pruning keeps them smaller.
Perhaps the most enchanting fig I’ve ever seen, an Aussie figlet called Little Ruby is billed as a natural dwarf that offers masses of adorably tiny, burgundy skinned fruits. Native to Australia rather than the Mediterranean, Ficus rubiginosa can get enormous, but is very often bonsaied to splendid effect. Little Ruby snuggles happily into large containers and will overwinter in a sun room or on a deep windowsill in colder regions (though it’s hardy to zone 6). Another dwarf fig variety suitable for container growing, Black Jack crops generously at a young age, often stabilizing at around six feet in height when container grown. The green skinned fruits turn purple when ripe.
Making Figs Happy
In gardens, figs prefer full sun and deep, well drained soil, amply amended with mature compost. Most figs are disease-free and have few if any pests. Water young trees consistently until they are fully established, and give them an inch of water a week in summer. During hot spells, figs may drop fruit if drought stressed, so water deeply every other week to keep roots well irrigated. Mulch with mature compost and flaked straw to conserve soil moisture and suppress weeds. Don’t be tempted to over-feed them; high-nitrogen feeds tend to encourage foliage rather than fruit. However, container-grown fig trees will need a mild (5-5-5) monthly feeding from late spring through mid-summer. To enjoy the fruit of your labor, cover fig trees with bird netting as figs ripen. Harvest figs as they ripen and grow soft, as they won’t continue to ripen once picked.
Tough commercial growers prune figs hard, unless they are espalier trained, figs rarely need more than light pruning. Fig tree sap can irritate skin, so always wear gloves and protective clothing when pruning. In late winter, remove dead, damaged or diseased branches as well as any that cross or rub another branch. If a fig tree seems crowded, remove inward growing branches to open the plant’s core to light and air. Prune off all water shoots (straight, upward-growing shoots along lateral branches) as well as suckers from the base of your tree. To keep pruning balanced, begin with the lower branches and work your way upwards.
Reveling In Ripe Figs
Though you can store fresh figs in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, they taste at room temperature, and really are best when sun-warm and just picked. Their complex flavor profile makes figs as versatile as raspberries or tart pie cherries, equally at home in savory or sweet dishes. To start your day of well, add chopped fresh figs and almonds to morning oatmeal or muesli, or spike fig and banana smoothies with a dash of maple syrup. Split fresh figs in half and fill with asiago or pecorino cheese, or garnish a green salad with slivered fresh figs and toss with a citrusy dressing.
Fig And Feta Salad
4 cups mixed greens
1 cup shredded arugula
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
4 ripe figs, quartered lengthwise
2 tablespoons chopped pitted kalamata olives
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
2 tablespoons finely sliced basil
Toss greens with green onions and divide between four plates. Whisk together the lemon juice, oil and feta, set aside. Divide figs, olives, and nuts between plates, drizzle with feta dressing and serve, garnished with basil. Serves four.
Grape Stuffed Figs
8 large red or green seedless grapes, frozen
1 ounce fresh goat cheese or mascarpone
2 tablespoons walnuts, chopped
8 ripe figs, whole
Gently roll grapes in soft cheese, patting as needed to coat thoroughly, then roll in chopped nuts. Slit each fig and insert a grape, leaving the fig partly open. Makes 8.
Fig And Honey Ice Cream
1 pint vanilla ice cream, homemade or any
4 ripe figs, finely chopped
2-3 tablespoons local honey
Let ice cream stand at room temperature until slightly softened (10-15 minutes). Combine chopped figs and honey and swirl into softened ice cream. Repack into a freezer container and freeze until hard (at least an hour). Serves at least one.