What's In Season: Figs

What's In Season: Figs

To me figs have an almost mysterious quality. They have a sensuous and sculptural appearance, like a little package containing a secret. Figs are an ancient snack food, mentioned in the Bible and some say also on the menu in the Garden of Eden. I won't venture an opinion on that, but figs are certainly a romantic fruit with an intensely sweet flavor. And while dried figs are available year-round, fresh green or black figs are one of summer's best pleasures.

Fresh figs also seem to be getting a longer market season. I'm not certain why that is but it used to be that green figs would only be available in the fall and they'd always be really pricey. But this year I saw my first green figs in mid-July and already the prices are dropping, albeit not to bargain prices (more on why they cost so much in a moment).

Most figs -- fresh and dried -- sold in the U.S. are grown in California; only Turkey produces more. It's believed the fig originated in the Middle East and came to the New World via the Mediterranean, in the 16th century. They arrived in California in the 18th century, along with the special breed of wasp once needed for fertilization. Today Smyrna/Calimyrma figs still need meticulous cultivation, including making welcoming homes for the wasps. But the more widely grown types of figs, including Black Mission and Kadota, self-pollinate without any wasp labor.

The fig itself, the soft pod that we eat, is actually the base of the fig plant's flower and what may seem like little seeds are in fact part of the fruit's structure. And it's all edible. Like dates, another popular Mediterranean fruit, most figs end up being dried and used in sweets. And also like dates, dried figs keep well without refrigeration and have concentrated, sweet flavor. In terms of nutrition, figs can pack a punch. They are high in antioxidants, potassium, fiber, iron, and unusual for a fruit -- calcium.

Raw, fresh figs represent only about 10 percent of our California fig harvest; the rest are dried. And the high price? It's because fresh figs are so fragile. They're fragile to pick, to pack, to transport, and to sell. And all that gets added to the final cost we pay.

Buying and Storing Fresh Figs

Cooking, Serving and Pairing Figs

When it comes to serving and cooking with figs, pair them with flavors that compliment figs' intense sweetness.

Flavors to partner with figs include nuts, vinegars including balsamic and sherry vinegars, honey, cured meats like prosciutto and ham, warm spices including cinnamon and cardamom, herbs like rosemary and thyme, and dairy, especially cheese.

Because fresh figs are precious and usually costly, my favorite way to eat a ripe green fig is one that showcases its tender texture, beautiful color, and forward sweetness. I simply snip off any rubbery tip, cut the fig into quarters, and smear each piece with soft goat cheese. The contrast of the fig's intense sweetness with the cheese's chalky tang is for me, one of life's all-time best flavors.





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