The fig is the tasty, sensuous fruit of one of the world’s oldest trees, genus Ficus carica or common fig, a member of the mulberry (Moraceae) family.
This deciduous tree grows 10-30 ft. tall. Its broad palmate leaves, with 5-7 lobes, feel rough on the surface and softly hairy on the underside. The branches do not bear blossoms as we know them. Rather, tiny flowers are inside the plump, pear-shaped fruits that are green, amber, brown or purple in color—and it is these flowers that produce the crunchy edible seeds that give figs their unique texture. The outer skin is fragile and easily bruised; the fruit’s wall is fleshy, cream-colored, and its “seeds” pink, red or purple.
References to figs, which are native to the Middle East and Mediterranean countries, appear early in recorded history. Homer wrote about them in 2738 B.C. Figs are mentioned in writings of the Sumerians and Assyrians. The Bible describes fig leaves as the wardrobe for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “…and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” (Genesis) There is a belief that the “apple” tree in the Garden was really a fig tree.
Ancient Romans believed the fig to be a sacred fruit. The wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus is said to have rested under a fig tree. And the asp Cleopatra used to commit suicide was brought to her in a basket of figs.
Figs, a staple food for rich and poor, are believed to have been first cultivated in Egypt and later spread to ancient Greece. The cultivated fig industry began in Mesopotamia; India and China cultivated figs in the 14th Century. Caravan routes carried the fruit far and wide.
In the early 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought figs to the Western Hemisphere. Franciscan missionaries brought them to California (hence the name “mission” figs), which had a climate ideal for fig-growing. The state now produces 100% of the U.S.’s dried figs and 98% of the country’s fresh fig supply. In 1892 the first commercial fig product appeared: the Fig Newton.
Figs are a symbol of abundance, fertility and sweetness. There are hundreds of varieties of the Ficus carica; there is a taste, color and texture to suit every palate.
Some of the most popular fig varieties:
- Brown Turkey: light purple to black skin; robust flavor
- Black Mission: deep purple to black skin; intense earthy flavor; used in recipes
- Fresh Kadota: (a/k/a Italian Dottato) amber color skin; light delicate flavor, good for canning and drying
- Fresh Calimyrna – pale yellow skin; sweet nutty taste – favorite for eating out of hand
Buying & Storing
Packaged fresh figs are available in supermarkets from May to mid-December. Dried figs, usually strung together, are available year round.
Fresh figs are perishable and bruise easily, so buy one to two days prior to eating. They should be a rich, deep color and have a mildly sweet fragrance. Choose figs that yield to light finger pressure–do not buy any that are bruised, mushy or smell sour.
Fresh figs may be stored in the fridge for up to three days prior to eating. If they are not yet ripe, set in single layer, covered, on countertop at room temperature. Eat as soon as they turn ripe.
When ready to enjoy fresh figs, wash with cool water and remove the stem.
Nothing pairs as well with figs as honey, a match made in heaven. Other strong flavor affinities include sugar, vanilla, and oranges, as well as nuts like almonds and walnuts. Fig are also flavor-compatible with cured meats— particularly prosciutto— goat cheese, mascarpone, dry red wine, and spices such as ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Dark and white chocolate also complement well.
Cooking & Preparing
There are countless ways to enjoy this delicacy. Eating by hand, skin and all, is a favorite method.
Fresh figs may be poached or stewed. Make a fig jam and add to oatmeal or spread on warm bread. Wrap fresh figs in prosciutto or stuff with mascarpone cheese. Poach in juice or wine and serve with yogurt. Add to a salad of fennel, arugula and shaved parmesan cheese; or spread fig paste and goat cheese on crostini.
Eat dried figs as snacks, or cut up and add to cakes and desserts such as fig bars or Italian Christmas cookies, a traditional favorite.
There is good reason why figs have been considered a food staple for centuries. Nutritionally, figs are a good source of fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, iron. B6, copper, potassium, manganese, and pantothenic acid.
Frances Fiorino, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., has worked for Conde Nast, Time, and McGraw-Hill. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., she delighted in helping her Sicilian father nuture three beloved fig trees – not to mention eating the bounty.