Go figure

Figs are a wonder of the botanical world

Is the fig in season? Flavor don’t lie.

Is the fig in season? Flavor don’t lie.

What is a sweet, wonderful thing that grows from a tree, if not a miracle? And, surely, fruits are miraculous things—but let’s not delude ourselves with talk of raspberries, apples and peaches. For no fruit, after all, is as miraculous as the fig.

We are talking about Ficus carica, the common edible fig, that tender, drooping teardrop of summer whose origins as a domesticated food lie beyond the horizons of recorded history somewhere in Asia Minor. It was bred into almost countless varieties, dispersed reverently throughout the Old World, and finally was taken along as essential luggage by emigrants bound for the New World.

All of which is mundane.

What is so miraculous is that the fig arrives in two very distinct crops per year, and sometimes even three, a feature almost unheard of in the botanical world. The main crop, the one that fills farmers’ market tables and provides 90 percent of the state’s production volume, ripens in August and extends through September, October and, in some cases, November, December and January.

But there is an earlier crop, which arrives in June and is called the “breba” crop, and these figs are now swelling and sagging as we speak. Some commercial growers think little of this first flush of figs, saying that the fruits are oversized with water, relatively flavorless and too few to be profitable.

Tonetta Simone Gladwin, owner of Passion Fruit Farms near Merced, grows 250 acres of four fig varieties—Calimyrna, brown turkey, kadota and mission—and she prunes away the first crop from each except the latter. Only the mission’s breba crop, she explains, is worthy, as sweet as the second crop, and the fruits of the breba at least twice as large.

Gladwin cautions against buying first-crop figs too early, for there is a trick used by many growers: By applying a drop of olive oil to the underside of each ripening fig, their fruits will rapidly turn color, assuming the hue of a ripe fig but not the sweetness or flavor. Big bucks, after all, go to the fig farmers who win the race of putting the first baskets on the shelves.

“After six months without figs, customers will pay big money for those first figs,” says Gladwin, who does not oil her missions. To avoid these falsely ripened figs, she warns, resist any that arrive in late May or the first week of June, and wait until midway or later through the month.

Or buy at farmers’ markets, where vendors wise to the ways of figs sell fruits picked at the height of natural ripeness, when they have begun to split up the sides, appear to be sweating with sappy juices and have begun to squash under their own weight—ugly yet perfect, and oil free.

The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op will be carrying breba-crop figs any day now. Shoppers here can expect Adriatic, kadota, brown turkey, mission figs—the mainstays of the fresh fig industry.

Rare figs, too, can be found. Maywood Farms in Corning organically farms mostly the usual varieties, but customers, who are welcomed to visit the farm, can also find excel, tiger-striped panache (though this beautiful variety produces only a second crop), trojano, several Israeli types and almost a dozen more oddity figs. Within Sacramento, Maywood’s figs appear at Whole Foods and the Co-op.

For another farm-fresh fig experience, visit Mike Motroni, just west of Esparto at 24727 County Road 22, where the family ranch features a small block of century-old mission fig trees, still producing as exuberantly as ever. Call first at (530) 665-3518. By mid-June, Motroni will be selling breba figs on-site.

And he, like most small producers, allows them to ripen naturally. And thankfully so, for we do love olive oil—just not on our figs.