Figs in Antiquity
Figs are members of the mulberry family, flowering specie of plant that include the breadfruit, mulberry, and banyan tree. The common fig is one of the first fruit trees cultivated by early civilizations, with archaeologists finding multiple references to the fruit appearing in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Ficus plants are extremely hardy and drought resistant with an aggressive root system that digs deep into the earth searching for groundwater.
This hardy survivor, loves the sun but can endure a wide range of temperatures, making it ideal for cultivation in many geographical zones and climates. Plant a fig tree in fertile soil and it can grow to over thirty feet with a massive trunk, root system and canopy. This is an ideal shade tree.
Native to the Middle East, the trade caravan routes that traversed the Sahara desert help spread the cultivation of the deciduous fig tree throughout Africa and the Orient. Portugal – a great seafaring nation from as early as the 15th century, established trading posts along the West coast of Africa, namely Ghana. It was aboard a Portuguese caravel returning from trading posts in Africa that the first fig plant was introduced to European soil. In the 16th century, Cardinal Reginald Pole presented a fig tree as a gift to the Archbishop of Canterbury in England.
It is commonly believed that the Spanish introduced figs to California and by extension the New World also in the early 16th century. They were planted in 1769 by Franciscan Friars at Mission San Diego de Alcala, who were sent by King Carlos III of Spain to introduce Catholicism to the inhabitants of the New World – primarily the American Indians. This is how the dark purple fig became known as “Mission.”
In the city of Atlanta, my executive chef has a mission fig tree in his backyard. They are exceptionally sweet with delicate skins that often ooze syrup when ripe. Unlike other fruit, figs cannot be picked from the tree until fully ripened. They have a short shelf life, which explains the rarity of fresh figs in supermarkets. Chef was proud of his fig tree and announced that our tasting menu would feature the first figs from his tree. I smiled when he, like a proud father, placed two mission figs on my cutting board.
“We served them with the cheese course – a small wedge of Pierre Robert- a decadent triple-crème-style cheese from Seine-et-Marne, France. A drizzle of honey from our bee hive on the fifth floor. A slice of grilled sourdough boule finished with sea salt and good olive oil.”
I love eating fresh figs, even though my first taste of the fruit came as an adult living in America. Imagine my surprise to find a fig tree growing in Jamaica. I have no idea who brought the first fig tree to the island, but it must have been quite an adventure. I like to believe, the first fig trees were brought by Lebanese fleeing religious persecution from the Turks. The Lebanese were Christians and the Turks were Muslim. America was recovering from civil war, so immigrants leaving the Middle East in the 1860s and 1870s, sought safety in the British flag. Jamaica was a British colony so many Lebanese chose to make this small island their home.
I’m sure fig seedlings made the arduous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean unsure of its place in the New World. Imagine seeing what they saw, life branching out before them. From the tip of every branch, like a ripe golden fig, hope beckoned from the horizon. One fig was freedom, and another fig was family, a chance for a fresh start and another fig was Jamaica, a new home. And the plant took root according to its nature, adapting and surviving as it always has for thousands of years. I have no idea who brought the first fig tree to the island, but I’m grateful.