Not just Newton
Despite disappearing orchards and lingering diner distrust, California figs keep on rockin’ in the boutique-fruit world
A fresh fig: It’s soft as pudding, smooth as silk, sexy as satin and sweet as honey. What’s not to love? And while figs have long been shirked as a weird and exotic oddity, this fruit finally has gone mainstream among fine diners in America.
Presumably it’s not too late. California’s fig orchards, which supply the nation with nearly all its figs, have been vanishing steadily for 15 years. Fig acreage in the Central Valley has declined from 21,000 in the 1990s to approximately 9,000 today, as the real-estate boom has coerced 75 percent of fig producers into selling their land to housing development and other industries.
“Things started going south in the early ’90s and bottomed out around ’96,” says Richard DeBenedetto, a fig farmer of six decades in Chowchilla who owns and manages approximately one-fourth of the California industry. He explains that the vast majority of the state’s fig trees are grown for the production of dried figs—a less lucrative product than the relatively rare fresh version. And while the price of dried figs slowly has risen since its plummet in the last decade, DeBenedetto says, it’s “not quickly enough to save a lot of orchards.”
Denise Junqueiro, director of marketing with the California Fig Advisory Board, believes that growing demand ultimately will overcome the surge of development in California’s farmlands, because that’s what she’s supposed to believe. But she might be right, too. “Development is a concern right now,” she says, “but it’s not keeping us from moving forward. Figs are becoming very popular, and they’re certainly not vanishing. Thing is, with technology and new agriculture techniques, we have the ability to increase fig tonnage even with a decline in acreage.”
One way of doing so is simply by gearing orchards toward the production of fresh figs instead of dried. Orchards designated for dried-fig production bear large gaps between the rows of trees. This space allows for maximum sun penetration to facilitate the weeklong dehydration process, which occurs first on the branch and then on sheets of plastic spread along the ground within the orchard. But this tree arrangement subtracts from the production potential. On the other hand, groves planted for fresh fig production bear two to three times the number of trees per acre than dried-fig orchards. The price per pound is significantly higher, too, and as interest in fresh figs climbs toward the sun, the future of the California fig industry may depend on recognizing that it’s only demand for the dried ones that has dried up.
So far only the slightest fraction of California figs are sold fresh, yet appreciation for them has increased by 60 percent in the last five years as diners have come to esteem the remarkable texture, sweetness and versatility of this fruit. That’s why Kevin Herman, a Madera grower who owns approximately 50 percent of the commercial fig acreage in California, has converted some of his dried-fig orchards to fresh-fig production (and others to pomegranates and tree nuts). He has not, however, sold any land to developers. “I do have some ranches in the path of growth,” Herman says. “I’m a capitalist, and if someone wants to pay me incredibly high prices for some of this land, I’ll do it. Some farmers say there’s a lifestyle we need to preserve. I believe in perpetuating the family farm if it remains profitable, and with fresh figs coming along like they are, things are looking better.”
Cultivated for perhaps as long as 11,000 years in the Middle East, figs are tremendously popular in the Old World and have been praised in many ancient literary works—most memorably in numerous Biblical scenes. The Spaniards introduced the fruit to the New World in the 16th century and to Baja California in the early 1700s. As the missionaries plodded northward, they brought the fig with them, and it thrived in the climate of the Central Valley. The variety the Spaniards cherished was a purplish-black sort, which would become known as the Mission fig. Unlike the Mission grape, which was imported by Spanish Catholics but eventually abandoned as a wine source, the Mission fig largely has prevailed over subsequent imports and breeders’ concoctions, and today it represents about 35 percent of the annual California fig crop.
In the plant world, figs are an anomaly. Firstly, the trees produce no blossoms prior to fruiting; the fruit itself is a bizarre, inverted flower. Secondly, figs arrive in two crops per year—a freakish phenomenon. In the Northern Hemisphere, the first crop generally arrives in June. Through July the second crop develops, and by mid-August most fig trees are heavy again with ripe fruit. The second crop is the larger of the two and may endure through the fall and into November and December.
To celebrate the kickoff of the autumn fig season and the many culinary uses of this fruit, the California Fig Advisory Board and Slow Foods Madera are hosting the fourth annual Fig Fest on August 11. It will be held at the farmers’ market in Fresno and will feature fig appetizers from more than a dozen local restaurants, fresh and dried figs for sale, fig trees for sale, recipes and live music. Award-winning chefs and authors Sondra Bernstein and Marie Simmons will autograph their respective cookbooks. The event attracted more than 1,000 people last year, and this year even more are expected.
“We’ve gotten so many more calls about the Fig Fest this year than last,” says the Fig Advisory Board’s Junqueiro. “We’ve got people coming from Alaska, Ohio, Kentucky—and these are people flying out here just for the festival. The interest in figs is just exploding. The focus used to be mainly on the Fig Newton. Now people know there are so many things to do with them.”
Fresh figs may be prepared in many ways—sautéed, pickled, stuffed with soft cheese, added to sweet coconut curries and more. Executive chef Malachi Harland of the Chef’s Table—located in the “Fig Garden” area of Fresno—prefers marinating fresh figs in vinaigrette, grilling them and wrapping them with pancetta. Harland will be featuring several fig-oriented dishes for sampling at the Fig Fest, including a swordfish entree and a smoked-salmon salad. The dishes also will be served at the grand Fig Fest dinner, a five-course extravaganza to be held at the Chef’s Table after the fest. Both events promise to be packed-house affairs, which goes to show that figs have assumed something like rock-star status. Of course, you know how it is with rock stars: They tend to inspire love-hate relationships with the masses. “Every time I put figs on the menu in some form, the dish sells fast,” Harland notes. “Still, it’s one of the most underappreciated fruits. Maybe it’s just how they look, but a lot of people are still reluctant to try them.”
Such is the enigma of the fig; many people claim to adore them yet still prefer the safer bets of oranges, plums, apples and other “ordinary” fruits. The sweetest figs, in fact, are those that have ripened to the point where they sag limply from the branch and have just begun to shrivel and dry in the sun. Bordering on repulsive, such specimens bear a strange form of beauty; they may not boast the clean and delicious appeal of a fresh peach, but anybody who’s eaten an overripe fig fresh from the tree knows that appearances are wildly deceiving. Anyway, thousands of years of popularity speak for the fig’s enduring virtues as both a simple snack and also an item of supreme luxury.
Herman sees four primary reasons for the growing popularity of fresh figs. “One, they taste really good. Two, they’re really healthy for you. Three, when you cut them up and show people that creamy interior with the red flesh and the seeds, they can be really attractive. And four, a lot of people are trying to emulate the European lifestyle of wine and good food.”
Ah, yes: The illustrious “Mediterranean diet,” which embraces health, long life and rich foods while actually promoting daily wine consumption on the convincing pretense of well-balanced health. And figs fall squarely into this culinary region, which so many Americans are now so eagerly exploring.
So, in spite of the high demand for San Joaquin Valley real estate, Junqueiro may be wise to predict a promising future for California figs. Growers, she says, continue to develop cultivation techniques to induce a per-acre production boost. Particularly big things are in motion on one of Herman’s fig ranches down in the Imperial Valley, 30 miles north of the Mexican border. Through manipulation of the irrigation, fertilizing and winter tree-pruning schedules, he has extended the season at both ends to previously unknown degrees.
“You can accelerate the timing of the harvest and also slow it down by controlling these factors,” he says. “Last year, we kept getting ripe figs until late January, and this year we picked figs in mid-May. We’re aiming for April, eventually.”
Herman says it was once his goal to provide fresh Mission figs for New York City shoppers for Christmas. “We’ve accomplished that,” he says. “Now the goal is Valentine’s Day. People associate figs with summer, but watch: You’re going to start seeing a lot more figs in year-round supply in California.”