Figs blossom inside themselves! This 5000-year-old process brings about the subtle crunchy texture you detect when you chew into a Fig Newton. In keeping with their curious reproduction scheme, figs are the only fruit which fully matures, then partially dries, before falling from its tree a perfectly ripe piece of fruit!
Figs come with a lofty history dating back to 2900 B.C., when they were highly esteemed during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They were held sacred in all the countries of Southwestern Asia, also in Egypt, Greece, and Italy. They were never picked each year until a special priest declared them properly ripened. Symbolically, figs stood for abundance, unity, true understanding, knowledge, fertility and faith. The Bible prophets Micah and Isaiah described “sitting under one’s own grapevine and fig tree” the perfect symbol of peace and contentedness in ideal times. The Greeks insisted figs were “more precious than gold.” Fig wreaths crowned the heads of Olympic athletes in times of victory. They were Cleopatra’s favorite fruit, and the prophet Mohammed probably said it best. “If I should wish a fruit brought with me to Paradise, it would be the fig.”
In addition to popularity for their taste, figs were also used medicinally. The prophet, Isaiah, mentions them as a treatment for boils, and helpful for those suffering from sleeplessness and stomach ache. Before 100 A.D., the wise Roman naturalist, Pliny, the Elder, wrote that figs preserved the elderly with better health and less wrinkles. A chemical found in figs, Psoralens, has been used for thousands of years to treat skin pigmentation diseases. The high alkalinity in figs is also considered by some to be beneficial to persons wishing to quit smoking.
A later distinction for the fig came in 1891, in Newton, Massachusetts, when a new fig cookie was developed and named a “Newton.” In 1898, the cookies were renamed “Fig Newtons,” and became the third biggest-selling cookie after Oreos and Chips Ahoy. Every year almost a billion Fig Newtons are baked by the now Nabisco Brands division of RJR/Nabisco empire.
There are literally hundreds of fig varieties. California ranks third in production after the yields in Turkey and Greece. The most popular types grown in California are the Calimyrnas, Black Mission, and Kadotas:
- The popular Calimyrna fig is noted for its delicious nut-like taste and tender, golden skin. This popular fig is best eaten “as is, with no special preparation.
- The Mission fig (pictured above) has a purple-black skin with pinkish flesh. It is delicous plain or in recipes.
- The Kadota fig is thick-skinned and has a creamy amber color when ripe. Practically seedless, this fig is a favorite for canning, preserving and drying.
All figs provide more soluble and insoluble fiber than any other common fruit or vegetable. Figs have nutrients especially important for today’s lifestyles. A quarter-cup serving adds 6% of iron, 6% of calcium, and 7% of the Daily Value for potassium. They contain no fat, no sodium or cholesterol. Recent research has shown that California figs also have a high quantity of polyphenol antioxidants.
Each year, fresh figs are harvested in late summer and early fall. They are available all year long, however, because most of them are dried and conveniently packaged. Find them in the produce or dried food section.
Always refrigerate figs. They will keep in the freezer for up to one year.
- Add chopped figs to any hot or cold cereal.
- Cover figs with your favorite juice, refrigerate overnight, enjoy with breakfast in the morning
- Stuff figs with ricotta cheese and chopped almonds.
- Slice figs into any green salad, top with honey-herb dressing
- Make a trail mix of chopped figs, crunchy cereal and pretzel sticks
- The Talmud mentions using some figs as a seasoning in in fish stew.
- An ancient recipe for preserving figs was to grind them and add sesame, anise, fennel seed and cumin. Make balls of the mixture and wrap in fig leaves. Once dried, the balls were stored in jars.
BLUE CHEESE AND FIG APPETIZER
1 cup Dried Mission Figlets
½ cup Port wine
½ cup Chopped nuts (coarsely)
½ cup Blue or Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
¼ cup Softened cream cheese
- Remove fig stems, cut in half.
- Place figs and wine in saucepan. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes, or until wine has evaporated. Let cool.
- Combine figs, nuts, blue cheese and cream cheese in food processor. Process until combined, not smooth.
- Spread on toasted baguette slices. Serve at room temperature.
- Makes 2 cups spread.
(Adapted from two California Fig Advisory Board recipes.)