Hot for figs

California drought means early bumper crop of old-world fruit

Soft, sweet fig flesh now dripping from produce shelves.

Soft, sweet fig flesh now dripping from produce shelves.

photo by marc kjerland (via flickr)

Thanks to unusually dry and warm weather, figs are ripening throughout California at record early rates this summer. Growers in Southern California harvested their first figs on April 22, the earliest that the first of the year’s two fig crops has ever arrived.

Now, the second fig crop—the bigger one—is in full throttle at a time when, in most years, the first fruits are not even showing signs of drooping and growing soft. At S&S Produce, the figs arrived this week—harvested on a local farm that usually isn’t producing figs until mid-August. At Chico Natural Foods, figs were on shelves last week.

Not only is the summer fig crop earlier than almost anyone can remember it arriving in the past, the crop is going to be a bumper, too.

“My trees have twice the fruit on them this year as they did last year,” said Ed George, a fig farmer near Davis who grows more than a dozen varieties of the fruit. Figs are a species native to the warm and dry Middle East, and hot weather—like that of this spring and summer—suits the trees well. George says the early season will mean an early end for most varieties, though some—like the striped panache fig and the Sierra fig—will continue producing fruit until the first frosts of winter put the trees into dormancy.

Karla Stockli, CEO of the California Fresh Fig Growers Association, says trees in the San Joaquin Valley—home to 7,000 acres of figs and one of the largest centers of production in the world, after Turkey, Greece, Iran and the coastal nations of northern Africa—should be producing figs into October. She says the trees also are loaded with fruit.

“After the last two years of low production, the industry really needs this, especially since demand is up,” Stockli said.

However, shoppers eager to get their fig kick on should be wary of figs in the market that aren’t fully ripe. Early in the season, when figs draw the most money, farmers vie to produce the first fruits. They may harvest their figs before they are fully ripe, and to bring out the dark color of some varieties, they place a swab of olive oil on the underside of the fruits—a trick used quietly within the California fig industry to give a fig the appearance of being ready to eat. This practice is perfectly legal, though only some farmers employ it.

A properly ripened fig has wrinkled skin, often with splits down the side, and may be dripping sap from the hole on its underside. It will be soft and heavy, like a glob of jam. However, markets in the height of fig season often are full of unripe figs that are hard and chewy and which would bounce if dropped on a hardwood floor. Figs, unlike avocados, bananas and stone fruits, won’t ripen off the branch. To avoid prematurely picked figs, ask your local vendor to sell figs by the pound, rather than in pre-packed baskets or plastic clamshells, which may contain one fully ripe fig for every three that were picked too soon. This will allow you to individually select each fruit.

The four main commercially grown varieties of figs are Calimyrna, brown Turkey, black mission and Kadota. Stockli says the black mission, probably the most popular, is grown across 3,000 acres of land (though her statistics don’t include many smaller, independent growers). The beautiful Panache fig, with its vertical green and white stripes and the market name of “tiger fig,” is gaining popularity for its stunning good looks and the raspberry red flesh inside. While the Calimyrna fig has been an industry staple since it was imported from Turkey in the late 1800s, this fig, which requires pollination by a unique type of wasp if the fruits are to ripen, is difficult to grow and slowly is being replaced with two similar-looking varieties, called the Sierra and Tena figs, according to Stockli.

George, the farmer near Davis, says this year’s figs have come so unusually early that it’s taken his customers—including restaurant chefs and retailers—by surprise.

“It’s going to be a few days still until all the chefs realize that it’s on,” he said.