Figs are members of the genus Ficus belonging to the family Moraceae (mulberry family) and are one of the earliest fruits cultivated by man. The fig tree was mentioned very early on in The Bible and some scholars believe the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was a fig rather than an apple, which would actually make more sense as it’s supposed to be a fig leaf which Adam chose to “protect his modesty”.
Although there are 800 species belonging to this genus, here we will concentrate on The Common Fig (F.Carica) which is the type most commonly cultivated nowadays for culinary purposes.
Origin and history
Cooked figs have been used as a sweetener since ancient times – a practise which still continues today in North Africa and the Middle East. They were also used for medicinal purposes as a laxative and diarrheic.
The fig is native to an area from stretching from Turkey to northern India. Sumerian (present day Southern Iraq) stone tablets dating back to 2500 B.C. record the use of figs. By the 8th century B.C. they had been introduced to Greece where they became an important staple: fresh in the summer – dried in the winter. By the 5th century B.C. fig cultivation had spread to Italy and they were sufficiently important to Romans that great effort was put into developing new cultivars even though it was still considered that the best figs were to be found in Syria. By this time, fig cultivation was also widely practised in Spain, North Africa and Portugal – introduced by the Arabs during the Arabic Conquests, – as well as in France, the Channel Islands and even the southern part of England.
Figs were first introduced into the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century. From the West Indies figs spread to the United States and by the 20th century they had become a thriving industry parts of the south of the US. The first California figs were planted in 1769 in the gardens of the mission at San Diego. These same figs were planted in the string of missions which spread northwards and became known as ‘Mission’ or ‘Franciscan’ figs.
Cultivation and processing
Fig trees can grow over 50 feet tall in the wild however, commercially grown trees are usually kept to below 15 feet and look more like a large shrub or bush. Newly planted seedlings start bearing fruit after 5-7 years and continue to produce fruit for a very long time. Trees which were planted at the beginning of commercial fig production in America about 100 years ago are still bearing fruit today.
Unusually, these trees don’t produce any outer blossom from which the fruit form. The actual fig is in fact a specially adapted flower, an “accessory fruit” called a syconium which can best be described as an inverted flower. The fruit/flower contains a small opening in the apex and a hollow area inside containing small seeds which are pollinated by small insects crawling into the cavity and fertilising the fruit.
Figs usually crop twice in a season although some varieties can crop throughout the season. The first crop in summer is generally used for fresh fruit and the second crop for drying. As the fruit doesn’t continue to ripen once picked, they must be allowed to fully ripen on the tree for optimum flavour. This may account for some of the tasteless fruit sometimes to be found in supermarkets, as imported fruit have to stand up to the rigor of travelling and are probably shipped when they are not as ripe as they should be.
The fruits are either hand picked from the tree or gathered by mechanical sweepers after they have ripened and fallen to the ground. When hand picking, the wearing of gloves is advisable as certain cells in the plant produce a latex that contains ficin, a protein-decomposing enzyme which is an irritant to the skin and can cause dermatitis.
When dried, figs become more flattened. They lose their pear-like shape and become rounded. Depending on their quality, they are either naturally dried or process dried. Natural-dried figs are threaded onto cords or into rings and dried in the sun or by machine. During the drying the fruit exudes a glucose which crystallizes on the surface giving it a dull appearance. Process-dried figs undergo several procedures, namely drying, immersion in salt water, pressing and then drying again. The pressing gives the figs a shiny appearance.
Buying, storing and cooking
Fresh figs must be fully ripened on the tree to be of the best quality and flavour. Ripeness or maturity cannot be judged by the colour as this differs, depending on the variety, from very deep purple to yellow. A ripe fig is soft and yielding to the touch, but not mushy. Choose fruit whose skins and just about to break but careful not to bruise the fruit, as this will make it spoil very quickly.
They should be clean, dry and smooth skinned. Take a sniff – a sour odour indicates that it has already started to decompose and ferment. A very firm fig is not ripe and as mentioned above, will not properly ripen any further.
It’s important to keep fresh figs cool to retard deterioration. Use them immediately or store in a plastic bag in the coldest part of your refrigerator for up to two days. Figs can be frozen whole, sliced or peeled in a sealed container for ten to twelve months. They can also be purchased in tins. Dried figs have a shelf life of over a year if stored in cool low humidity conditions.
The flavour of figs go particularly well with Prosciutto, Parma ham, and cheese and because they produce protein-digesting enzymes which break down muscle and connective tissue in meat, they make an excellent ingredient in meat dishes acting as a tenderiser as well as a flavour-enhancer. Dried figs can be used interchangeably with prunes, dried apricots, and dates in most recipes.
- 450g/1 lb fresh figs = 12 small
- 175g/6oz fresh chopped figs = 1 cup
- 450g/1 lb tinned whole figs = 12 to 16 figs
- 150g/+5oz dried chopped figs = 1 cup