Ficus carica, known to us as the common fig, probably originated in Asia Minor, and has been highly regarded as a major contributor to the diets of many countries. Figs were one of the crops that were known in China during the Tang dynasty in the 700’s BC.
The fig tree was mentioned often in The Bible with some authorities believing the forbidden fruit picked by Eve to be a fig and not an apple. It seems reasonable to suppose that figs were at least in abundance in the Garden of Eden, as the young couple used the leaves as underwear.
The fig was such a staple food that Egyptian armies are recorded as having cut down the fig trees of their enemies, and baskets of figs have been discovered among the tomb offerings of dynastic kings. The Egyptians are said to be the first to prize the laxative qualities of figs. High in potassium, iron, fibre and plant calcium, figs are still used in medicine as a diuretic and laxative. No, it’s not just your granny that says they keep you “regular”! Plato documented that Greek athletes at Olympia were fed a diet of figs to increase their running speed… Er, well, that would make sense!
Homer wrote of figs when he described the orchard of Alcinous, visited by Ulysses, which featured figs. The poet Alexis of Thuria in the 4th century celebrated the foods of the average Greek, which included “that God-given inheritance of our mother country, darling of my heart, a dried fig.” Its importance in Hellenic culture was third only to that of the grape and the olive.
Cleopatra did away with herself with an asp brought to her in a basket of figs, and when Cato promoted the conquest of Carthage, he used the argument that the advantage of acquiring fruits as glorious as the North African figs would be quite a nice idea.
Cooked figs were used as sweeteners in place of sugar in ancient times, and this practice continues today in North Africa and the Middle East although by choice rather than necessity.
The fig tree can live as long as 100 years and grow to 100 feet tall, if not pruned. Most gardeners keep trees to a height of 10 to 20 feet because the fruit is hard to collect from trees much taller than that. The tree is deciduous with large 3-lobed leaves. The fruits are considered strange as they bear the flowers inside the flesh and they rely upon insects to crawl inside to pollinate them. This process is called parthenocarpy.
There are hundreds of varieties of figs, ranging in colour from nearly black to almost white, but only the female fruits are edible. In harvesting the figs, it is important to pick the fruit only when it is completely mature–usually when it changes colour. A fig should not be picked from a tree if it is over-ripe, since it will have begun to ferment. When a fig is harvested it should be soft to the touch; a very firm fig will not ripen properly. The green varieties are normally reserved for drying and it takes about three pounds of fresh figs to produce one pound of dried figs.
Figs are harvested from June till October depending on the region, although some new cultivars will be ready for eating in April. This year has been disastrous for figs in the south of France. The weather was wet in the spring and early summer, the figs are small and hard. It’s probable that the crop will be very poor.
The shelf life for freshly picked figs is short and the fruit generally last only about 2 days in the fridge, so if you have a glut think about making jams. I have Thane Prince to thank for this delectable recipe for Fig Jam. You’ll find this and lots of other equally scrumptious recipes in Thane’s book called simply Jams and Chutneys. Have a look at the review here.
Takes 45 minutes
Keeps for 6 months
1.1kg (2½ lb) Ripe figs
Freshly squeezed juice of 2 lemons
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1kg (2¼ lb) white granulated sugar
125g (4½ oz) liquid pectin
Cut the hard stems from the tops of the figs and peel. Cut the flesh into 1cm (½ inch) chunks.
Put the figs, lemon juice, and zest in a large preserving pan. Simmer over a low heat for about 30 mins until the figs are very soft.
Add the sugar and continue to simmer over a low heat, stiring, until the sugar has dissolved.
Stir in the pectin, increase the heat, and cook at a full rolling boil for 10 minutes, then test for set.
When the jam has reached setting point, pot into hot sterilized jars, seal, and label.
Article and recipe by Chrissie Walker © 2018