Not to go all biblical on you, but any fruit that makes it into the Bible or on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has to be pretty special. Whether you’re religious or not, you must admit that figs are kind of like the grandmother of the fruits family. They’ve been painted, studied, written about, and philosophized for centuries. Furthermore, they have been scrumptiously enjoyed for just as long.
It’s no secret I have a significant, if not often obsessive, adoration for fruits and vegetables. In fact, more so than most people, my heart flutters upon the discovery of a fragrant, ripe pineapple or beautifully-colored sun-kissed beets. So, when I tell you I love figs, trust me, figs are fantastic in countless ways.
When researching various tidbits of literature about figs to write this article, I was astounded by just how many cultural references are associated with figs. Did you know that figs are the long-standing symbol of female sexuality? Or that the renaissance painter Michelangelo painted the fig as the forbidden fruit on the famous Sistine Chapel ceiling? In Greek mythology, the god Apollo creates the constellations, Hydra, Crater, and Corvus, by throwing disobedient servants into the sky, all of whom were tempted and dishonest due to the luscious allure of a fig. Even Buddha achieved enlightenment under the sacred fig tree.
This fruit has managed to cross all different cultural and historical boundaries, influencing generations and history books forever. I don’t think the pluot can claim the same bragging rights. Jokes aside, it’s very interesting to think about the fig in terms of not only consumption, but as a historical totem.
And now, lucky as we are, we don’t have to risk damnation or death by exile to enjoy the succulent little beauties. Grocery stores sell them for less than 5 bucks for a pint. Or of course (my favorite) Sunday Santa Monica farmers market sells them as well. September and early October just about wraps up the prime fig season when they are at their plumpest and ripest.
The most common figs varieties available are calimyrna, black mission, brown turkey, the bright white-centered, adriatic, and slightly more scarce, king or san pedro. A perfectly ripe fig is slightly soft, giving ever so slightly upon the pressure of your fingers, and it’s deeply colored and sweetly aromatic. The flavor and color will vary amongst the different varieties, but it always displays a sweet, almost brown-sugar flavor with a slight note of acidity. The interior is brimful of tiny seeds, woven in a mess of tiny fibers. It sounds awful, but it’s not. The tiny seeds and connective tissue is very soft and easily broken-down in your mouth without any sour taste.
Fresh figs are sexy, a thing of beauty. Biting into a dark mission fig and revealing the vibrant pink flesh and the juicy sweet nectar, it’s a fruity foodie experience to say the least. When perfectly ripe, they need no accoutrement except perhaps a glass of Muscat or dry champagne. Who says champagne and strawberries is the primo romantic gesture? I want figs and champagne. It’s what the Mediterranean folks would do. They’re way cooler than us Americans—so I’m in.
If you so choose, a couple delicious ways to spruce them up would be:
- Sliced in half, sprinkled with palm sugar, and bruleed. Then garnish with a chiffonade of fresh mint and Thai basil. It’s a sweet, herbaceous one-bite-wonder.
- Sliced in half, smeared with camembert, and sprinkled with honey and ground toasted almonds.
- Slowly cooked down in a stockpot with sugar, vanilla bean, and apricot nectar. Then cool the syrupy jam, and store in the fridge to use on ice cream, toast, cake, or anything you can think of.
- Sliced into quarters, and added to a salad with Arugula, frisee, bacon, shallots, and balsamic vinegar.
- Roasted whole, wrapped with proscuitto.
Figs are very perishable, so once you get them home (assuming you don’t eat them all in the car on the drive home, which I’ve been victim to more than once), keep them on the counter for a day, then store them in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Figs are a darn tasty, highly seasonal fruit to be celebrated. Figs have withstood the sands of time, and for good reason, they are distinguished all over the world culturally and gastronomically.