Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Figs make very attractive starters (e.g. served with Parma or Serrano ham) and delicious desserts. Try them drizzled with honey and your choice of cinnamon, thyme and pistachios, then roasted and served with a dollop of mascarpone or crème fraiche. And they're a great addition to an after-dinner cheese board.
Thought to be indigenous to western Asia, the selection and cultivation of figs began in remote antiquity. Stone tablets dating back over 4,000 years record the use of figs in southern Iraq and the harvesting of figs is depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting from around 1,900 B.C.
Figs were grown in Greece by the eighth century B.C. and taken to Spain, Portugal and North Africa with Arab conquests. Later they were spread via European invasions to Central America (sixteenth century), North America (seventeenth century) and Australia (eighteenth century).
Technically a single fig is a syconium containing over 1,000 tiny fruits (what are thought of as the seeds).
There are hundreds of varieties of the common fig (Figus carica) ranging in colour from purple-black to yellowish-green. Fig trees can grow to 15m tall and many types are dependent on fig wasps for their reproduction; the wasps pollinate the fig as they move between seed pods laying eggs.
Figs are rich in minerals and a good source of potassium, manganese and iron. They also contain vitamins A, B and C and a decent amount of fibre.
Figs do not ripen after picking and so unripe figs are to be avoided. Choose figs that are richly coloured, plump and soft but with unbroken skins. At peak ripeness they may be covered with a light, fuzzy bloom. A sour smell indicates figs that are past their best.
Due to the difficulty of transporting ripe figs undamaged, the very best figs are only found in the countries where they grow. If you are fortunate enough to be in a Mediterranean country during the season, be sure to try a local, freshly picked fig to experience how they should REALLY taste.
After harvesting, figs have a short life. Keep in the refrigerator and use within a day or two.
Wipe with a damp kitchen towel. If the stem end is hard, cut it off. To show figs at their best, halve them or cut a cross in the top and press your finger in to splay them out.
When the last of the fresh figs have disappeared for the year, get some dried figs and make Figgy Pudding...