a test kitchen dossier
Figs are restorative. They increase the strength of young people, preserve the elderly in better health and make them look younger with fewer wrinkles.
Etymology: From the Latin ficus, meaning “fig tree” or “fig”
Area of Origin: Mediterranean region
Figs have an appeal that is both sensual and earthy. A seemingly simple and even ugly exterior masks a lusciously seductive interior which invites us to consume it with abandon. In fact, figs are said to be the true forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, which does not surprise us in the least. A member of the mulberry family, the fig is a pear-shaped fruit that can range in color from deep purple to brown to green, and it has a fleshy interior filled with tiny edible seeds that are covered by a somewhat tough outer skin. Figs are extraordinarily packed with minerals: they are rich in potassium, calcium and iron, and also offer high quantities of fiber.
Figs have been recorded in history as early as 2700 B.C., and have been a staple food of both the rich and poor. Their presence can be seen throughout the ancient world, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, and they were valued not only as a symbol of fertility, but as a nourishing, restorative fruit. Figs have even been discovered in the tombs of great leaders, where they were offered as fuel for the trip to the believed after-life, and an ancient Greek ruler made it illegal to export figs out of Greece because he wanted to reserve them for his citizens. Winners in the earliest Olympics were given figs to eat as a reward for their athletic prowess. When Cleopatra decided it was time to escape this mortal coil, she had the asp that ended her life brought to her in a basket of figs, rumored to be her favorite fruit.
The popularity of figs spread throughout Europe and eventually reached the Americas in the 1500s when Spanish explorers introduced the tree to American soil. They reached the West coast of the United States in the 1750s when the Spanish missionaries planted fig trees at their mission in San Diego. As the mission chain spread northward through California, fig trees were planted at each new location, resulting in what is now known as the popular “mission” fig.
Figs have also been praised for their medicinal benefits throughout the ages. A chemical found in figs has been used to cure skin pigmentation disorders for thousands of years, and in modern times, some people believe that the high alkaline properties of figs help people to quit smoking.
Figs grow well in a wide variety of temperature ranges, so today they grow all over the world. Greece and Turkey lead the world fig production, with California following closely behind.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of types of figs. The most common ones today are the Adriatic (green skin, white flesh), the Calimyrna or Smyrna (green skin, white flesh), the Celeste (purple skin, pink flesh), the Magnolia (amber skin, pinkish-yellow flesh) and the Mission (purplish-black).
Although figs are usually harvested in late summer and early fall, they are available year-round in all forms ranging from dried fruits to preserves. Figs should be refrigerated immediately upon purchase (or picking, if you are so lucky), as they are very perishable. They will keep in the freezer for about a year.
Prosciutto and figs is a classic Italian pairing, but figs have uses that extend far beyond this combination. The Spanish often eat figs with manchego cheese, either in fresh form or preserved as pan de higo, a fig cake with almonds. This simple yet sublime preserve will last throughout the winter. Figs are a luscious addition to sauces, chutneys and pickles, and enrich cakes and puddings with a natural sweetness. Poaching figs in simple syrup transforms them into a delicious candied fruit suitable to be paired with ice cream. We encourage you to bask in the glory of figs with everything from wine and ginger to honey and cinnamon to lemon and chèvre and everything in between.
You may often see our Gilded Fork recipes reaching into the stratosphere, but the fig encourages us to worship its simple majesty. The multitude of tiny hair-like seeds in its interior draws us in and makes us take care not to do much to steal attention from this thankfully not-forbidden fruit.
Caramelized Fig Spread
Dried Fig and Hazelnut Bread
Fig Tart with Vanilla Crème Patissière
Hazelnut and Fig Linzer Cookies
Pan de Higo (Spanish Fig Cheese)
Red & White Salad with Candied Pecans, Figs and Chèvre
Seared Duck Breast with Figged Port Demi-Glace
Photo by Lia Soscia
Dossier research by Ava Tramer