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The Modest Fig

BY MARY WARNER

F
or more than a century figs have been associated with a popular tinue to be an important crop that yields a versatile ingredient for
lunchbox cookie, but today they have become a darling of the both sweet and savory dishes.
farmers market. Unlike the ho-hum cookie filling, one bite into
a fresh fig yields a fleshy mess of ancient sweetness. Thousands of cultivars of figs exist throughout the world. In ancient
Rome, they were fed to geese in preparation for iecur ficatum, a dish
I discovered figs a few years ago. It was summer and I was walking evocative of foie gras that that translates to “figgy liver.” Nearby in
around a corner when the scent of honey stopped me. There were no Greece, local demand made figs illegal to export. Outside of Western
blooms. Instead, a sinuous tree stood alongside a building. I’d seen its Europe, they took on a different identity. Figs, along with apples, sweet
verdant leaves before in the paintings I’d studied as an art history potatoes, honey and spices comprise the Indian relish phaldari chaat. In
student. (In Albrecht Durer’s painting of Adam and Eve, fig leaves South America, green figs are simmered with raw brown sugar and cin-
symbolized modesty.) Then I noticed something else. From the tree’s namon to make dulce de hijos, which is served cold with fresh cheese. In
slender limbs emerged knobs of green orbs. the American South, figs appear in tarts, preserves and cakes, but mostly
they are eaten fresh from the tree.
“They’re figs,” someone told me when I recounted my discovery later
that day. It would be months before I’d get to taste one. There are a few options for procuring figs. One great way is to grow
them. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have an already-established
Edible figs are the earliest known agricultural crop. They are actually tree on your property, fig trees are available from local nurseries in late
inside-out flowers, not fruit. Fossilized specimens dating to 9,400– spring through early fall. If your nursery doesn’t have any in stock
9,200 BC discovered in the Middle East predate the domestication of they can usually be special ordered. Northern Georgia’s climate is ideal
wheat, barley and legumes. for a couple of varieties. Look for the Celeste or Chicago Hardy, both
of which are easy to maintain. Celeste, sometimes called the “sugar
Photo by Caziopeia

The fig is nutritionally rich in fiber, copper, manganese, magnesium,
potassium, calcium and vitamin K. For this reason—and because they fig,” produces a medium-size fig that is perfect for drying or making
bear little resemblance to anything else humans consume—figs con- preserves. Chicago Hardy, known for its blackish purple skin and
strawberry-colored interior, is a relatively new variety that originated
in Sicily. It is ideal in tarts, sautés or plucked right from the branch.

ISSUE 2 EDIBLE METRO & MOUNTAINS | SUMMER 2009 9
Both varieties can be planted outside—preferably a good distance
from your house, since their roots are notoriously invasive—in full
sun. Although they’ll die back in the winter, the trees will resprout in
the spring. For those without a yard, another option is to plant fig
trees in large pots. Chicago Hardy and Celeste thrive in containers.
Fill the pots with a mixture of sandy soil and large stones. The stones
will help keep the soil warm. Judiciously prune the tree’s branches as
you would a bonsai tree to ensure compact growth. In the ground or
in a pot, healthy trees should yield two crops a year.

If you are eager to have a pint of figs and don’t want to wait, then cul-
tivate a good relationship with your local farmers market. Figs will sell
out. Vendors appreciate the enthusiasm for their produce and most
Fig Cake Recipe won’t balk at a request for a call when figs arrive.

Once you have your figs, don’t wait to use them since they have a
This recipe has been slightly changed from its original form. For
short shelf life. If you can refrain from eating all of them on the way
those who appreciate a lightly sweet cake, omit the sauce. About
home, you have a few options. Pair with meat or mix with stone fruit
12 servings.
for a twist on cobbler or pie. Stuff fresh figs with goat or blue cheese
1½ cups sugar for a quick hors d’oeuvre; or sauté with a knob of butter and drizzle
2 cups all-purpose flour with honey to accompany ice cream for a light end to a meal.
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon When I finally tasted my first fig, it was in the form of cake. I hap-
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg pened to find a note card on the floor of local farmers market while
1 teaspoon salt shopping one day. In a loose old-fashioned script was the recipe for a
fig cake. eMM
3 eggs (lightly whisked)
1 cup fig preserves and juice
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk Mary Warner is a writer living in Atlanta. She can be reached at
1 teaspoon vanilla maryhelene@gmail.com.
1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350°. Sift dry ingredients into large mixing
bowl. Stir in eggs, fig preserves, oil, buttermilk and vanilla. Fold
in pecans. Pour into greased and floured tube pan and bake for
approximately 55 minutes. Remove cake from oven. Cool for 15
minutes. Remove cake from pan and pour sauce (recipe follows)
over cake while still warm. Cool before serving.

Sauce for Fig Cake

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon White Karo
½ tablespoon vanilla
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup butter

Boil ingredients together for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Pour
over cake. [Source: Anonymous]

10 EDIBLE METRO & MOUNTAINS | SUMMER 2009 WWW.EDIBLEMETROMOUNTAINS.COM