If you've ever been fortunate to pluck an impeccably ripe fig from its tree, the memory has likely stayed with you. Chef and columnist O Tama Carey talks of this plump fruit like a long lost friend – mysterious, pined after, and great with gorgonzola.
O Tama Carey

19 Mar 2014 - 6:02 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 3:07 PM

History of figs and how they hid our shame

Figs are an ancient fruit thought to be one of the first plants cultivated by humans, even pre-dating legumes, wheat and barley. There are references to them throughout mythology and in biblical stories. It’s even said that it was a fig that Eve had eaten, not an apple, which caused all that trouble and loss of innocence. Conveniently, the leaves of the fig tree are nice and large – perfect for covering the most modest of body parts.

Looking way back, in ancient Rome, it’s said that geese were fed figs in order to fatten them, which is a pre-cursor to modern-day foie gras. The white milky sap that seeps from the leaves was also utilised in milk for its setting properties, similar to rennet, to make the first fresh ricotta. In attempts to extend its uses, I have also infused the leaves in cream to make gelato, and used the sap to make mascarpone – the result elucidates a slightly grassy green perfume on the palate.

Every fruit has its secret

Figs have a delicate thin skin, veiling a hidden, inward-opening flower. Like cherries, they're delicate and don’t welcome the cold, are hard to transport and won’t last long once plucked from the tree. As the fig ripens, it droops at the stem and the small ostiole, or stalk, at its base will open, collecting droplets of nectar. This is the ideal time to pick your fruit, before it bursts or is devoured by lucky local birds. Some figs are best eaten when bordering the overripe stage, so hold off on picking as long as you can.

The Black Genoa is the most common commercial variety, with a dark purple skin, red seeds, white flesh and roughly the size of a plum. It’s a tasty fig that’s best when super soft and ripe, and with a dark, almost jammy, flavour. There's also the Kadota, a green fig with white flesh and tinged green seeds; this one has a lighter almost honey-like flavour. One of my favourites is the smaller green ones, which are still a little firm when ripe and have a beautiful white flesh surrounding a shock of pink seeds, and a flavour that sits between rich and red and the softer nectar hints of the white varieties.


Who gives a fig?

A fig can be a very ordinary creature for those unlucky – too firm, slightly bland, a little seedy or grainy, and quite frankly nothing to get excited about. In their prime, however, they are a thing of true beauty. I clearly remember the best figs I ever tasted: I was 13 and my mother had taken me on one of her notorious walks, which usually involved no water, long distances, a hot day and no real destination in mind. We were in the south of Spain, staying on a hilltop surrounded by small mountains all covered with wild rosemary. After traipsing up and down hills, we were getting thirsty, hot and bothered when we finally stumbled on a lone fig tree, laden with fruit. We stood there eating ripe, soft figs still warm from the sun, relieved that we had such refreshing sustenance and also amazed by how delicious and juicy they were.


Fresh and soft and dried and chewy

Cooked or dried figs have been used as a sugar replacement in the Middle East and parts of North Africa. These days, dried varieties offer a different and equally delicious form of the fruit and its resulting flavour is much more intensely sweet. In terms of texture, the difference is pronounced; a chewy, dense mouthfeel with the internal seeds ultra-grainy and worlds away from the soft succulence of a freshly picked fig.

Dried figs are excellent in biscotti and breads and also appear in Sicilian chocolate salami – a Berta staple – an excellent dish that doesn’t actually contain pork but is a delicious mix of chocolate, savoiardi and dried nuts. Hard cheeses are also friends with dried figs, a great textural match that mirrors a crumbly crystallised Parmesan. Fresh figs are happily matched with any variety of cheese, especially soft, creamy ones, and who can forget the classic Italian dish of figs baked with gorgonzola or prosciutto wrapped in figs? Figs also love honey and nuts and are especially good with poultry.


The proper way to eat a fig in society

The DH Lawrence poem, Figs, depicts the salacious nature of figs, with the line:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,

Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,

And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower

Humans have always eaten figs and they’re a fruit that people love with open passion. The best way to eat them is to find a tree in the sun and have your fill.


Photographs by Benito Martin. Styling by Trish Heagarty.


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