Old World fruit

We shouldn’t have to wait too much longer for spring figs

Figs—the real forbidden fruit?

Figs—the real forbidden fruit?

Photo By Alastair Bland

Close your eyes in nearly any village in southern Europe, reach out a hand, and you’re liable to encounter a fig. This teardrop-shaped fruit has its roots set deep in the Old World, where it emerged from wild origins as a domesticated plant thousands of years ago and has since propagated itself and been propagated by admirers from Portugal to India. The trees crowd villages, line roadsides, grow like weeds in river canyons, cling to cliff walls, explode out of castle turrets, burgeon from the bellies of Roman bridges, bust apart the hand-set stonework of historical monuments, and sprout from cracks in the walls.

On this side of the world, figs are less easily found, though California, to be fair, is the capital of New World fig abundance, and the season is about to begin. Figs are best known for their fall crop, which runs from August to as late as November and December in some places, but there is also a first and relatively brief crop of fruit. Called the “breba” crop, it can begin as early as late May after exceptionally hot springs, but this year—after the cool, rainy weather—we are not likely to see breba figs until late in June and early July.

Rebecca Stewart, the owner and chef of Spice Creek Café, is waiting. Stewart likes to take advantage of figs’ earthy sweetness by working them into savory dishes—often in the spirit of Old World cooking traditions. For example, a favorite combo is figs with garbanzo beans.

“Figs have soft, sweet flesh that goes really, really nicely with crunchy things, I’ve noticed,” Stewart said. The same principle makes figs and walnuts a good match, a dish Stewart sometimes serves as an appetizer.

But the fig is highly versatile, and Stewart also slices them over pastas and stews or grills them with lamb, mashes them up with assorted herbs for a chutney presentation and bakes them in crumbles. Stewart even reduces figs in wine, vinegar and spices and whips up a fig barbecue sauce to slather over meats—bringing a rare sense of European sophistication and finesse to the greasy American sport of barbecuing.

The most commonly seen fig in California may be the Black Mission. This variety first came to the New World with the Spaniards, who tenderly packed branch cuttings along with their gunpowder and cannonballs. From Baja California to Sonoma County, these land-grabbers built churches, converted native peoples, and planted fruit orchards—and while the Spaniards eventually left, their fig trees, happily, remained.

Another popular local variety is the Calimyrna, a very popular fig imported from Turkey in the 1880s but whose fruits—though supreme when eaten fresh—are mostly dried and rendered into paste, juice and powder. The Kadota, Adriatic and Brown Turkey also make up a substantial portion of California’s commercial production, which all told amounts to about 10,000 acres of trees in the San Joaquin Valley (Turkey, the king of fig farming, has about 50,000 acres, by some official reports). Local farms produce a small share of figs, too, but with the warm weather just beginning, their fruits won’t be arriving at local farmers’ markets until early July.

The unusually chilly and wet spring may also subdue the sweetness of this year’s breba crop.

“Without the heat, the figs’ sugar levels just don’t get up there,” said Howard Garrison, who manages the fig plot at the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, a government-operated grove of several thousand tree-fruit varieties—including about 300 figs, many acquired from the Old World through trades and collection adventures.

Garrison is an advocate of using figs on the grill. A favorite recipe involves wrapping fish fillets in fig leaves to contain the steaming, simmering juices. He also enjoys slathering figs with olive oil, stuffing them with goat cheese, and showing his friends just what this charismatic fruit of the Old World can do.