A fig was one of three sacred trees of ancient Rome (along with an olive and a vine; they grew at the heart of the original forum). The fig is mentioned numerous times in scripture (“And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.” Numbers 20:5). A large, spreading fig tree grows right outside my window. When the fruits ripen, I watch the blackbirds come to feast on them, and, later in summer, the wasps. At night, the Beech marten comes. I know this because I find its seed-filled scat on the terrace the following morning.
I don’t begrudge the blackbirds any of the first crop of figs, which ripens in July. They are watery and tasteless. It is the later crop that interests me. In a hot year they are ready in August. In cooler years they come ripe in September and October. They have beautiful purplish skins and are exquisitely sweet. Delicious eaten straight from the tree.
Incidentally, Patience Gray in Honey from a Weed, says that “The milky juice the fig exudes was used as rennet to curdle milk in cheese-making. This explains the ever-repeated advice not to drink wine after eating figs. In any case a too enthusiastic indulgence produces a feeling of satiety and a swollen stomach.”
Honey from a Weed is the best book I have ever read about cookery and food. It is about much more than that in any case. Certainly not just a dreary list of recipes. It is about people and places and plants and conviviality, and vanished (and not-so-vanished) ways of life. My mother gave it to me when I went to live in Catalonia twenty-five years ago and it has travelled with me ever since.
I found the above fig recipe in the book and tried it out last week. I couldn’t follow it absolutely to the letter. I admit that the day was not in the first flush of youth when I picked the figs. But my little patch of ground is not in Puglia, so I was not too worried about the figs being over warm. I’m also not as nimble-fingered as Donna Adeline: I peeled the figs as carefully as I could, but some fell apart as I did so. When I came to the preparation stage, I used a glass pot instead of an earthenware one (the sugar did turn to syrup quite wonderfully, though). I wasn’t sure how much fennel and lemon to add, so I estimated. The result, tasted from the pan, was pretty delicious. It’s been in the jar for two days now. We’ll see how it tastes in a couple of weeks.