The sight of an old man lazily pulling his donkey on the beach is not as common these days as it used to be. With his obedient donkey and some weathered baskets, the old man brings the bathers a few treasures, the man’s frugal summer crop: freshly cracked almonds, and perfectly ripe figs! Chubby green, reddish or purple, usually small and far from picture-perfect, these figs are deliciously sweet and fragrant!
The fig is the final fruit of our summer, abundant yet very short lived, and like everything precious well worth the wait. Visitors from the north of Europe are impressed with the sinuous shape of the Mediterranean fig trees, which to us are the most common and natural sight. They usually grow wild, dotting and shaping the rocky hills, often near the sea, the drier the better.
The strong winds of the Aegean carry seeds to the most remote rocks, even on side streets of villages and cities, where fig trees can be seen sprouting from cracks on the concrete pavement. Goats don’t touch them because they hate the milky sap that circulates in the tree’s veins. Thus fig trees are among the very few plants—like oleanders, thyme, wild sage, and some thorny bushes – that can thrive on the islands where destructive goats roam freely. These wild fig trees need fear, or thank, only man, depending on how you look at it. The old man with his donkey and baskets empties the delicious fruits from the trees – is he a thief in the early morning, or a liberator, unburdening the heavy load on the branches? I don’t know what it says about my ethics, but to me he is a godsend.
Even in our backyard, which I describe below, the fig is elusive. The old man with his donkey must have an eye for the ripe fruit in a tree filled with potential that needs to be plucked. Two years ago, trying to describe the authentic experience and flavor of a real Mediterranean fig, a fruit that does not travel well at all, I wrote in the Atlantic: “Despite the fact that we have old, semi-wild fig trees in our garden, it does not guarantee that we will savor wonderfully ripe fruit come August. We need to be on the alert, prudently waiting for the ‘decisive moment’ when the fig bows ever so slightly, where its stem bends from the bough of the bole. Only then, and not before, is the tree ready to give its blossom over to the harvest. If you mistime the picking , even by half a day, the blazing August sun starts to dry-out the fruit’s succulent interior”.
In the World: Then & Now
What we have in abundance is a rare delicacy to others. There are, of course, fig groves outside the Mediterranean, and you might be thinking of the varieties produced in sunny California. But sun is probably not enough, as fruits grown away from the dry Mediterranean basin never taste like ours, as a visitor from California recently remarked, bemused by the sweet lushness of a fig he picked from our tree, with a little guidance from us, on the right side of the half-day danger….
Even in Europe, figs are a luxury for most people, as I learned from professor David Sutton’s presentation at the Oxford Symposium last July. The delivery of his paper, entitled The Festive Fruit: A History of Figs, began with him singing “oh, bring us a figgy pudding.” in the famous tune of “We Wish you a Merry Christmas.” He comes from England, a place where fresh figs used to be a luxury import, and even dried figs were a precious festive delight, reserved for the eponymous Christmas dessert. Before the British, though, the Romans had also chosen out of season figs as their fruit of choice for the New Year’s celebrations, exchanging jars full of figs and dates preserved in honey, along with a bay branch, a tradition that still continues in Naples. The ubiquitous fig has been a festive fruit for many cultures since antiquity, professor Sutton said, citing references in the Hebrew Bible, among other sources. Returning Crusaders planted fig trees in protected palaces and religious gardens as far north as Germany and England. We heard at the Symposium, and later read that people manage to grow fig trees in pots in England.
In Greek culture the classic comic poet Aristophanes declares that “nothing is sweeter than figs,” and along with honey, dried figs were used as sweeteners in antiquity. From the ancient Greeks comes the modern word sycophant –syko means ‘fig’ in Greek. See here.
In Our Garden:
We found a cluster of old fig trees on our property, when we first moved to Kea, more than ten years ago. The fig tree, Ficus carica, belongs to the extended Ficus family and is related to the Benjamin and other ornamental tropical indoor plants. It totally sheds its leaves in the winter, and its translucent new velvety leaves shine in the April sun, bringing with them the color of spring.
As they grow to the size of a palm or larger we use them to wrap fish, which we charcoal-grill. Fig leaves add an elusive aroma as they caramelize, protecting the delicate flesh of the fish as it cooks over the embers. It is a trick we learned reading ancient Greek texts.
While the timing of the fruits is unforgiving, the strength of the trees themselves is something to marvel at. One trunk was almost totally rotten and filled with ants, yet it still produced figs. Another was a great surprise; someone in the past had probably grafted a few of its branches, and it now produces three different varieties of figs: the early abourkounes – dark purple and oblong that ripen around early June, but are not particularly flavorful, just a hint of what is to come. Another branch gives small green-red vasilika — normally much larger. And yet another branch is filled with tiny light green figs, the tastiest and sweetest of them all. We aggressively pruned the old trees this year, to get rid of rotten branches, which were stealing precious nutrients from the healthy, fruit bearing limbs. But what we thought was dead have begun to grow once more, ever more persevering. Like olive trees, fig trees probably never die...
Small figs start to appear at more or less the same time, depending on the type of fig, and grow directly from the branch, often seeking protection under the shade of the large leaves. Although we call the figs fruit, they are really an inflorescence or infructescence, let’s say a sack that contains the plant’s flowers and seeds. Insects get inside the sack through a little whole at the bottom to pollinate the hidden flowers, which is why one should cut open a freshly harvested fig, and not just gobble it whole, as it may have attracted wasps and ants.
Not all figs will mature to become edible, and this is yet one more of their peculiarities. There are hermaphrodite fig trees that bear abundant crops of small dark green figs in the spring. These are the ones used to make spoon-sweets, the famous fruit preserves offered to guests around the coasts of the Aegean. Sykalaki (fig spoon-sweet) is one of the most difficult unripe fruit preserves, as it requires a long and complicated process that involves soaking the fruits in a solution of copper sulfate. I tried to bypass this somewhat scary step, but my preserves were totally unacceptable, so after a few failures I abandoned the endeavor. Instead I make various fig jams, usually adding lemon or other citrus fruits to balance the fig’s overpowering sweetness. You can try my Sweet and Sour Fig jam with caramelized sugar, cinnamon and balsamic vinegar that I whip up with the leftover, over-ripe figs that we don’t consume on the spot, or you can also make it with good quality dried figs.