The following is an excerpt from Whole Foods Companion: A Guide for Adventurous Cooks, Curious Shoppers, and Lovers of Natural Foods by Dianne Onstad. It has been adapted for the Web.
Shape is a good part of the fig’s delight. —Jane Grigson
Figs are restorative, and the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness . . . professed wrestlers and champions were in times past fed with figs. —Pliny, Roman naturalist (A.D. 23–79)
|The term Ficus is the old Roman name for this fruit. Of the many different varieties, the best was considered to be that flourishing in Caria in Asia Minor, hence the modern botanical classification Ficus carica. The English name fig derives from the Latin ficus.|
The fig is a native of western Asia. It can be found over a vast uninterrupted area stretching from eastern Iran through the Mediterranean countries to the Canary Isles, and it is now grown in southwestern areas of the United States. The genus Ficus is unique in that no flowers ever form on the trees; instead, it bears its flowers inside nearly closed receptacles that ripen into the fleshy, pear-shaped fruits, of which only the female fruits are edible. There are over 750 species in this genus. Some figs ripen underground, while others grow high in the air on plants dangling from other trees. Some figs are parasites that strangle and kill their hosts; others grow on low trailing shrubs in the desert or on tall trees in tropical forests. There are large figs and small figs, round figs and ovoid figs, spring figs, summer figs, and winter figs, and figs colored black, brown, red, purple, violet, green, yellow-green, yellow, and white.
The cultivation of figs goes back to the very earliest times. Drawings of figs dating back several centuries before Christ were found in the Gizeh pyramid. Fig trees were grown in King Nebuchadnezzar’s famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon and are mentioned frequently throughout the Bible and even in Homer’s Odyssey. While the fruit may not have had the eight hundred uses of the date palm (although its leaves were a more convenient size and shape for the specialized requirements of the Garden of Eden), the fig sometimes fruited well where the date did not, most notably in Greece, where it found a place in the diet of rich and poor alike. The Greeks are said to have received the fig from Caria in Asia Minor, and they in turn introduced the plant to neighboring countries, although at one point in Greek history figs were in such high demand that their exportation was forbidden by law. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Spanish fathers introduced this fruit to California and planted figs at the first Catholic mission in San Diego, California. This black mission fig is still an important variety in that state, which grows nearly 100 percent of the entire U.S. fig crop.
Ripe fresh figs vary in color from greenish-yellow to purple, depending on the variety. Fresh fruits should be plump and teardrop-shaped, be evenly colored, and yield under gentle pressure; occasionally they are slightly wrinkled or cracked. Softness, moistness, and oozing nectar all indicate perfect ripeness, but fresh figs are highly perishable at this stage and will not last long, even in the refrigerator. Avoid any that smell sour. Unripe figs, which exude a milky liquid from the stem, should be left at room temperature to mature. Dried figs are best if they still have some “give” to them and are covered with a light dusting of sugar crystals (formed from the fruit itself).
Cultivated for centuries as one of the most prized and nutritious of fruits, figs are highly cherished for their rich, sweet, alluring taste, which is nearly addictive (they have one of the highest sugar contents of cultivated fruits). Ripe figs are delicious; peeled or unpeeled, the fruits may be eaten on their own; cooked into pies, puddings, cakes, bread, and other bakery products; or added to ice cream mixes. Hard, unripe figs are best stewed, then used in cakes, jams, or pickles, but they lack the robust flavor of those that are fully ripe. Dried figs can be substituted in recipes that call for apricots, dates, or other dried fruits, and are especially tasty in baked goods; also try adding chopped dried figs to baked sweet potatoes or winter squash for a delicious new sensation. Over 85 percent of the fig crop is dried for market. Fig Newtons, those ubiquitous fig cookies, were first advertised in 1892 and named after the town of Newton, Massachusetts.
pH 5.05–5.98. Laxative, restorative. The medicinal use of figs is almost as ancient as the plant itself, and the fruit has been used to treat nearly every known disease. Containing more mineral matter and more alkalinity than most fruits, figs are great producers of energy and vitality. Either fresh or sun-dried, they work as an excellent natural laxative for sluggish bowels; the high mucin content and tiny seeds help gather toxic wastes and mucus in the colon and drag them out. The gums and pectin found in figs cleanse your cells by bonding to, and removing, the acids that would otherwise accumulate fat globules. Studies show that figs also help kill pernicious bacteria while promoting the buildup of friendly acidophilus bacteria in the bowel. Those who do not drink milk may want to add figs to their regular diet since the fig is one of the highest sources of readily assimilable calcium in the plant world. Although fresh raw figs are best, dried figs also give nourishment and energy to the body, especially during the winter months. Dried figs are typically preserved with potassium sorbate to help keep them moist without spoiling. Milk from the unripe fruit applied twice daily to warts helps remove them. Calimyrna figs have in their skins and kernels a substance that rips the skin of roundworms. It would be wise to eat some figs once in a while just to make the environment in the intestine sweet and to make it an undesirable environment for unwanted visitors. Intestinal parasites are destroyed by enzymes in fig juice, but all enzymes are destroyed by cooking.
Adriatic fig trees are prolific bearers, producing light green or yellowish-green fruits with pale pink or dark red flesh, very similar in appearance to Calimyrna but smaller and not as sweet. While good fresh, this variety is also frequently sold dried and is the principal variety used in making fig bars and fig paste.
Black Mission figs are black or dark purple with pink flesh and are of medium to large size. They have a moist, chewy texture and distinctive, sweet flavor. Spanish missionaries established a Franciscan mission in San Diego in 1769 and began to grow a Spanish black common fig that, under the names Mission, Black Mission, or Franciscana, is still one of the leading varieties. The dried version is smaller and drier, with an intense, dark, almost burned flavor.
Calimyrna, or California Smyrna, is a large greenishyellow fig that is less moist and not quite as sweet in its fresh state as the Black Mission fig. Considered to have a more traditional fig flavor and texture, this is the most popular dried variety. Often referred to as a caprifig, the Calimyrna is not self-pollinating and relies on an unusual method of pollination to produce mature edible fruit. Early growers of the Calimyrna (which started from the Turkish Smyrna) were puzzled because the fruit would drop off the tree before maturing. Finally, a researcher discovered that Calimyrna figs would remain on the trees if they received the pollen from an inedible fig called the caprifig. Each caprifig has a colony of small fig wasps, called blastophaga, living inside. When the wasp larvae mature, they go in search of another fig to serve as a nest in order to reproduce. Calimyrna growers intervene just prior to this point and place baskets of caprifigs in their orchards. Female wasps then work their way into the Calimyrna figs, carrying a few grains of caprifig pollen on their wings and bodies. Once inside, the wasps discover that the structure of the Calimyrna fig is not suitable for laying eggs and depart, leaving the pollen behind. Thick-skinned Calimyrna figs are usually peeled when used fresh.
Kadota is a small, thick-skinned fig that is generally canned or sold fresh. Actually greenish yellow in color with a violet-tinted flesh, it has only a few small seeds.