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 our stony and arid island, it is almost a miracle that these contorted, frail looking trees, with trunks infested by colonies of ant, manage to give such small, sweet, delectable fruits. Harvesting figs before the stem-curve moment results in unripe produce, good for the grill or salads, but certainly bearing no resemblance to the honey-sweet, wonderfully juicy taste we adore, the figs we long for the rest of the year.
How could I describe to you, my readers, what a ripe fig, freshly cut from our tree, tastes like? I persist in trying, despite the futility of such an effort; unless you’ve been somewhere in southern Europe or the Eastern Mediterranean in late July or August, there is no way you can appreciate the flavor every Greek child learns to savor from his earliest years. California figs are a different thing, as are figs imported from Greece or Italy. Figs don’t ripen in the box, and they are frightfully fragile when they reach their peak flavor; they simply are not meant for travel.
As the nights grow longer and cooler in September, although the days are still sunny and hot, there are still a few figs in our trees that didn’t manage to ripen at summer’s peak, and the time has passed for them to reach full sweetness. But they are still precious and not to be wasted; I make my Tipsy Fig Jam and use them in cakes, tarts, and other sweet and savory dishes; I also slice and freeze some of our plentiful figs to use in the winter as topping for breads and sweets.
With some of the semi-dried figs that fall to the ground from their unreachably high branches, I make a kind of fast jam, cooking them for about 20 minutes in sweet wine until softened, and then I puree them in the blender. I freeze the pulp in batches, to use in my bread dough, and in sweets, ice creams, sauces or marinades. This helps me bring back a shadow of summer’s most wonderful flavor.
Sykomyzithra and teleme
Figs and the sap from the tree were used since antiquity to curdle the milk and produce a fresh cheese. In Greece we call it sykomyzithra and in Turkey teleme.
From Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking (Wiley, 2009) we get the ancient, as well as the contemporary way of making the cheese, according to Musa Dagdeviren. In Musa’s beautiful video on Netflix we see the shepherds whip-up the fresh cheese, and of course Dagdeviren has included the recipe for teleme in his recently published encyclopedia-like Turkish Cookbook (Phaidon 2019).
To make this dessert that lingers between sweet and savory I use the recipe from Musa Dagdeviren’s book. Instead of dried figs I once used fresh over-ripe figs and the result was a lighter, exquisite cream. I like to sprinkled the bowls with walnuts toasted with brown sugar, salt, and rosemary.