Monday, June 9, 2008

In Praise of Figs

Before I moved into this house eight summers ago, I didn't particularly care for figs. I must have retained some odd childhood association with them or something, but aside from the occasional fig newton, I seldom had contact with them at all. But my grandmother, not a notable hedonist, would positively salivate over a plate of fresh figs, so I should have suspected that there was something more to them.

The spring after we moved in, the two fig trees on our property had bumper crops--one in late April, and another later in the summer. They were quite simply ambrosial. I made fig chutney, fig jam, and (best of all) fig confit (or konfyt, as my South African sources would have it)--a laborious but rewarding effort. I wish I had a photo of the jar of confitted figs I made to give to one of the chefs at school, because it looked like a container of liquid green jewels.

More often than not, however, I'd just eat as many of them straight off the tree as I could, because the mockingbirds do their best to beat me to the ripe ones. 8 oz. of figs provides a whopping 30% of one's daily fiber requirement, plus numerous other nutrients--and fig leaves help mitigate diabetes.

I have also learned that our fig trees are probably San Pedro (or at least some kind of Adriatic variety), and that the current crop (on last season's growth) is parthenogenic, whilst later fruits will have required pollination. A video on the interaction of figs and fig wasps (contributers to said pollination) can be found on Figweb. It's won awards, and is most certainly worth watching (if you're 21-minutes worth of interested).

Two years ago, the figs died back because of the drought, and I really missed the summer crop. Last year, they miraculously sprang back to life, but so much of their effort was put into rebirth that I got no figs. This year, the little nubbins started early--and for the first time, I saw them growing up the stalk, like Brussels sprouts. They're finally beginning to ripen (the cool spring seems to have held them back a bit), and today I said Shehecheyanu upon eating my first fig of the season. Although I'm one of little faith, certain traditions adhere--especially when they mark occasions like first fruits; I am, in fact, happy to have reached this point. Or, as my daughter would (less poetically) put it, I'm glad I'm not dead yet.

Figs are, in fact, ancient fruit. They're mentioned in the Bible, loaded with symbolic import, and included in early cookbooks. Apicius boils ham with figs and bay leaves, according to The Roman Cookery Book: A Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius, for use in the study and the kitchen, by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum (George G. Harrap, 1958). A newer interpretation by John Edwards (Hartley & Marks, 1984) includes a modern recipe, but--if you'll forgive me--it pretty much boils down to the same thing. Several other out-of-print translations are available through alibris. Ilaria Gozzini Gicosa's book, A Taste of Ancient Rome (University of Chicago Press, 1992; translated by Anna Herklotz) is still available (and Google Books has a preview). She notes how the Romans dried figs, and how they stuffed them (and dates).

Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger more recently wrote The Classical Cookbook (Getty Museum, 1996), and it's making the rounds with various Roman art exhibits (including In Stabiano at the Dallas Museum of Art last year, where I got it). They suggest wrapping fish in fig leaves (terrific idea I can't wait to try). Still not much on figs--but they seem to have been a staple, both in sweet and savory cooking.

If you're interested in trying the Green Fig Konfyt that wowed my chef friend, it can be found here, with a link to a printable version (the page works badly on Firefox). Its origins are Medieval, but it seems to be a favorite in South Africa, where this one comes from.

And finally, a word about fig leaves. In the interest of misapplied modesty, leaves often used to cover the genitalia of ancient and Renaissance statues. The Greeks and Romans thought nudity to be natural, but the pre-Renaissance Church couldn't handle intimate body parts and so typically covered them with leaves. Durer's Fall of Man uses strategically placed branches and leaves, for example, but not figs. Tullio's Adam is easily distinguishable from its Greek predecessors not by a fig leaf, but a grape leaf (he's currently under restoration; I wonder if it's to remove his leaf . . .). The best example of real fig leaves can be seen on the Adam and Eve figures on the Ghent Altarpiece--if anyone's interested. I'm just trying to clear up a common misconception, in the interest of ridding the fig of its bad rap.

I was really disappointed to find that the God Hates Figs web page, which promises to prove "that figs are the source of all the world's evil. Includes propaganda, resources and FAQ" appears no longer to be available on the web. It was a parody website in the tradition of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which would undoubtedly offend some who read this blog, so it's probably just as well. One never does know exactly where Google will lead one in the quest for blogfodder.

I think I'll go have a fig.

1 comment:

Prairie Gothic said...

I enjoyed very much the fig facts. My main fig experience also being Fig Newtons, but I'm sure they are delicious. High sugar content, what's not to like?