Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Humble Fig

"I call a fig a fig, a spade a spade" said some ancient Greek playwright.

Those who think about figs, a member of the ficus family, tend to think about them in the Summer and Fall. The season is short, the fruit is easily bruised and very attractive to birds and bees. Figs have been around for centuries and there are over 700 varieties. Adriatic, Mission, Calmyrna, Kadota, Brown Turkey, Celeste, Zebra, etc... The fig leaf was the inspiration for Adam's jaunty Speedo. The leaf is also a great natural doily, on a platter underneath cheese, crackers and spreads!

If I had a timeline for figs in my life it would begin in the late 60's, when I wondered what those Brits wanted when they sang, "Oh bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer" in "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."  No one ever brought our family any pudding. Cups of good cheer, yes! Our pudding was up in the cabinet in My-T-Fine or Jello-O boxes---Chocolate, Vanilla or Banana. We didn't grow up on cooked fruit. Fruit was a snack eaten raw, cut up into cereal, available on the countertop in a bowl, in a cooler at the beach, maybe rolling around in a lunchbox.

Through the years I've been wary of food that that was in my opinion, misnamed. I love raisins, which are dried grapes. I've never had a prune on purpose, but they are dried plums, so it turns out I have and I liked them. Call it what it is! Mincemeat pie is all kinds of dried fruit and does NOT contain meat, for the most part (except for beef suet--and that was not on mom's shopping list.) Sweetbreads are not sweet, nor is it/are they bread. Offal is pretty close to what it is = awful. But I digress.

Apart from mysterious Dickensian references to "puddings" Nabisco made it easy for kids like me to like figs, via their cookie called the Fig Newton. This sliced fig cake was invented in the late 1800's and named for a town in Massachusetts. I still like Fig Newtons, they are kind of dry, semi sweet and then a little sandy...but in a good way.

When I moved to Long Island City, NY in 1989 the neighborhood was slowly shifting from all-Italian and Irish to the full-on melting pot that is New York City. Over the next 20 years I heard Francesca Monaco, a longtime widow who recently passed away, speaking Italian to her old lady friends and her family. From my yard I could smell the aroma of garlic and basil as she cooked. On the other end of the "row" my elderly neighbor Joe Savino would pick figs from his backyard tree. Some September days, he'd wait for me to pass by as I commuted home from work. He'd say, "Hello, Dawn!" and hand me a brown paper lunch bag filled with warm and ripe figs. What a gift! I'd race to Manetta's restaurant and buy thinly-sliced prosciutto, and have myself a wonderful appetizer, with a glass of red wine out in the yard. I'd survey "all that was mine"-- a15' x 40' postage stamp yard, and think about planting my own tree. But, winterizing a fig tree in the Northeast is no easy feat--it requires a bucket, burlap, and bungee cords. With marriage, work, grad school, volunteering, divorce, more work, etc...I never got around to it.

Dining at Otto, Mario Batali's restaurant in Greenwich Village, NY and through taking cooking classes I started to appreciate the combination of fruit, honey and cheese. Not just sliced raw fruit. I mean baked fruit tarts, marinated cherries, truffles in honey, quince paste, fig preserves. The humble fig kept reappearing.

Scroll forward to Summer 2009. My first stop in Italy was Lake Como to visit with my friends Amy and Guido and their boys Liam and Luca. The ultimate Irish Italian family! Amy had set the temporary kitchen table for lunch and it was a welcome sight. She apologized for the height--it was a door on top of the washing machine! I cared not; it shortened the trip from the plate to my  mouth! I was so tired from the overnight plane and train trips. I slipped happily into my afternoon jetlag nap after a simple and delicious salad of greens, fresh figs, a light dressing and shaved parmasean cheese. The view of the red tiled roofs and the mountains right outside the kitchen window was more intoxicating than the wine!

Then came this incredible appetizer in the Tuscan town of Cortona. A massive fig, ripe, quartered but upright, filled with mascarpone, drizzled with honey and with a shaving of fresh parmasean. Yowza.
Later in the trip, our group went to Emilio Carlotti's olive grove in Montevarchi. I blogged about that last week. It was neat to see fig trees planted among the olive trees--happily coexisting as they have for centuries in the Mediterranean. Bright green, willowy branches heavy with fruit, contrasted against the silvery leaves of the sturdy and ancient olive trees.

Chef Faye Hess and her friend/our guide Claudio picked some fresh figs for us. This was the ultimate backroads Tuscan trip--no tour bus, no crowds, off the map, no tasting room, no shop. Just us, snacking on figs in a rainy olive grove.

Ok, so I've had 40 years of 'fig related signposts' in my life and it finally hit me over the head. Buy a fig tree, for fig's sake!

I bought this 4' tall Brown Turkey variety for $15 at Grower's Outlet in Pineville, NC. It doesn't look like much (I was tempted to buy a few) but this baby will grow to 20' high and more than 8' wide if I let it!
It's going to replace a ho-hum rose bush, and it will be the star of my yard, in time. It's going to be nice to watch this tree get strong and bear fruit...for jams and tarts and a grilled pizza that my cousin Chris has requested:  Chicken, figs, balsamic vinegar, fresh mozzarella and shaved parmasean.

I'm a recovering "Type A" but I don't think I'll be able to wait two years for my first harvest to make all that! I'll stock up at the farmer's markets as summer winds down.

Stay tuned, canning season is upon us. And now that I know what's in a mincemeat pie, I'll be making one of those. Dee-lish!

1 comment:

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