Figs in Antiquity

Fig trees blossom inside the fruit. Thousands of miniscule flowers produce the crunchy seeds that give figs their distinctive texture. 

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.

The Indian fig tree (Ficus bengalensis) is the national tree of India

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.

The fig tree is a symbol of abundance, fertility and sweetness.

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.

Some believe that figs not apples were the fruit in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.

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.”

Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, a large and old sacred fig tree

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.

Figs are high in fiber and rich in minerals like calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium.

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.”

The two most common figs grown in America are the golden Calimyrna and the dark purple, sweet Mission.

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.

California produces 100% of America’s dried figs and 98% of the fresh figs.

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.

Fresh figs pair best with ricotta, mascarpone, Gorgonzola and goat cheese. They are also delicious with honey, olive oil, walnuts, almonds and balsamic vinegar. They have an affinity to cinnamon, cloves and Pernod. 

 

Figs made their first commercial product appearance with the 1892 introduction of Fig Newtons® cookies.

 

Fig (English), Higo (Spanish), Figue (French), Feige (German), Fico (Italian)

 

Vanilla Bean Fig Compote
4 cups figs, 1 cup sugar, 1 vanilla bean (split the bean and scrape with a knife). Trim stem ends and rinse figs. Put into a heavy-bottomed saucepan with sugar, vanilla seeds and 1 cup water. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until a thick syrup forms. Let cool and store in refrigerator. Yield: 2 pints.

 

 

 

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