• Thank you, fig wasp! (Aliona Gumeniuk | Unsplash)Source: Aliona Gumeniuk | Unsplash
What the fig are we really eating?
By
Bron Maxabella

26 Aug 2020 - 9:51 AM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2021 - 12:20 PM

Fun party fact: you may have just eaten a wasp corpse with your blue cheese. That is, if you've just eaten figs with your cheese (which you most definitely should do).

Before you get completely grossed out, rest assured it's only nature shocking us with her ingenuity once again. See, figs aren't technically a fruit, but rather an inverted flower. So they bloom on the inside of what's called the syconium. This means that all of the reproductive parts of the plant are located inside the pod.

Now, the flower needs to be pollinated in order to reproduce, but how to get the pollen inside the fig?

Recipe here

Crunchy bits and all

Enter, the accommodating fig wasp. The tiny female wasp enters the edible fig and lays her eggs. She then dies, hence the wasp-inside-fig story. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement that has evolved over thousands of years. There are over 900 species of fig wasps, responsible for pollinating the world's 900 species of figs. The fig gets pollinated and the fig wasp has a safe place for its larva to feed and grow.

The seasonal cook: figs
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.

Before you fret about all the times you've crunched into a fig, rest assured that the crunchy bits are fig seeds, not insect corpses. The fig conveniently contains ficin, a powerful enzyme, that mostly digests the 1.5mm insect. This process becomes part of the flavour and finish of the ripened fruit, but there's technically no wasp left in your fig.

It might help (or not) to know that we essentially eat insects all the time

Would you like insects with your order?

If you're still feeling squeamish about munching on insects, it might help (or not) to know that we essentially eat insects all the time. The US Food and Drug Administration's Food Defect Handbook outlines acceptable levels of food contaminants and defects. Some of the acceptable insect levels include:

  • Five or more whole or equivalent insects per 100 grams of apple butter. This doesn't include mites, aphids, thrips, or scale insects, which presumably are allowed over and above the five.
  • Five or more dead insects per 100 grams of chopped dates.
  • One or more maggots per 250ml of canned citrus fruit juice.
  • An average of 2,500 aphids is acceptable in 10 grams of hops.

That's a lot of acceptable insect consumption! There are no such guidelines in Australia, just a vague requirement in our national Food Standards Code that all food sold in Australia be "safe and suitable".

You could be accidentally eating 140,000 pieces of insect a year
Think of it as free extra protein...

A little gratitude, please

Rather than freak out about the odd wasp in our fig, it might pay to be grateful. "Frankly, I think it's odd how much people separate food from nature," Matthew Evans, host of Gourmet Farmer and author of On Eating Meat, tells SBS Food. "Like, if you don't have aphids in your Brussels sprouts, that means you've probably got pesticides. It would be a bad thing if you weren't eating insects on a regular basis."

"Frankly, I think it's odd how much people separate food from nature." - Matthew Evans

Recipe here.

To make the most of their luscious wasp-enhanced flavour, Matthew recommends pairing your figs with creamy blue cheese, wrapping them in prosciutto and heating them gently under the grill.

"You've got the creaminess of the cheese, the sweetness of the figs and the saltiness of the prosciutto," he says. "Giving figs a little heat brings out their flavour, warming them back to being plucked perfectly ripe in the sunshine and eaten straightaway."

#notallfigs

It might also help to know that many of the types of figs that are grown commercially do not rely on wasps for pollination. Chances are, the figs you picked up at the greengrocers have never felt the pleasure of a burrowing wasp.

Chances are, the figs you picked up at the greengrocers have never felt the pleasure of a burrowing wasp.

"In order to reliably and annually grow and produce figs for commercial production, we propagated our orchard by taking cuttings from productive female trees, so we do not rely on wasp pollination as in nature," says Dionne Mitchell from Curra Creek Figs & Fine Foods in NSW, where figs are grown naturally without herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilisers. "We do however have beneficial insects such as lady beetles and St Andrews Cross spiders, which assist us in maintaining fig orchard health and seasonal fig production by predating on pest insects."

No wasps were harmed in the making of this jam.

Honestly, where would be without insects? Keep that in mind next time you bite into the first syrupy fig of the season. Either it's been commercially produced and wasp-free, or you've nicked it off the neighbour's overhanging fiscus, in which case ficin has taken care of that tiny little wasp warrior woman.

Gettin' figgy
Seared mozzarella in smoked ham with figs

Melty mozzarella wrapped in smoked ham, with fresh figs. You'll be whacking hands away to pick one of these up off the plate. This recipe is for a canape, so double it for an entreé size.

Figgy buns with hazelnuts and walnuts

Making our own bread is a labour of love but comes with abundant rewards, like these nutty fruit buns. Serve them warmed with butter for breakfast, or slice and toast them to serve with a cheese platter. 

Earl Grey & fig cruffins

This hybrid is a cross between a croissant and muffin – flaky pastry formed in a muffin tin. 

Ricotta, fig and hazelnut cheesecake

I love the texture the ricotta gives this delicious cheesecake. The figs add little pops of sweetness and the chocolate and hazelnuts delightful crunch.

Mixed seed and fig crackers

Once you have made these crackers for the first time I suspect you may never again bother with the ‘fancy’, often expensive, crackers you can buy. With their wonderful nuttiness and a hint of sweetness, these are perfect teamed with a soft goat’s cheese or brie.

Torn figs with mascarpone and blue cheese cream

“Matt Wilkinson, chef and cookery author, has a passion for growing, sourcing and presenting the best tasting produce he can. Here he showcases figs freshly plucked from the trees at Merri Creek's community veggie patch.” Rachel Khoo, Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook Melbourne

Fig tart with maple yoghurt

This gorgeous dessert looks like more work that it is. Its base is one of dates, almonds and tahini, and the strained yoghurt sweetened with maple syrup forms a luscious stage for ripe torn figs.

Baked fig and blood lime pudding

Earlier this year I came across the native Australian finger lime and instantly fell in love with its gorgeous caviar-like texture. Then, my colleague stumbled upon organic blood limes – a hybrid between the finger lime and an Ellendale mandarin – and grabbed a punnet with me in mind. There's nothing better than food as a present! I had a few figs left over from another dish, so I took the chance to make a dessert ideal for the cool weather. If you can't get blood limes, use regular limes.

Fig leaf gelato with caramelised black figs

Fig leaves can be a little hard to come by but they are worth the hunt as, added to the gelato they give a beautiful subtle almost green-ish flavour of figs. We did discover that they can curdle the milk so do be careful, do not add any extra or leave them in the milk for too long. This recipe will make lots of gelato so you can eat it for days. You will need an ice cream churner for this recipe and a blowtorch.

Apple and fig cake

With no butter or sugar, this gently spiced Maltese apple cake allows the natural sweetness of the fruit shine through. A dollop of whipped cream is literally the icing on the cake.