Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fruit of the gods

I love figs, especially fresh ones. And this year, like most of our orchard, our fig tree is very happily producing large quantities of the 'fruit of the gods', which appears in all kinds of mythological and religious texts, from Greek myth to the Garden of Eden, Koranic oaths 'by the fig and the olive' to the story of the Buddha sitting under the fig tree(there is also evidence from Neolithic times to suggest the fig may have been amongst the first plants to be cultivated).

And figs taste especially good straight off the true; being fruit that don't like travelling very much, they get bruised easily and they go very quickly from nearly ripe to fermentedly over-ripe, so buying them in the shops is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. But handily, unlike most fruit, figs don't ripen all at once on the tree--you get successive waves of them over weeks, so you can keep picking them without getting completely overwhelmed by a massive glut.

Figs are as I said especially delicious fresh and on their own--I love the way in which you bite through the brown-robed green-tinged skin to hit the melting stranded crimson sweetness inside, like a kind of natural mousse. But the fresh fruit is also wonderful in lots of different recipes, both sweet and savoury. And of course the dried variety is nice too. It's easy by the way to dry figs--you just set them whole on a rack in the sun(protected from insects etc, say in a sunroom or in a glassed-in box of some sort) and just let them dry till they are shrivelled, brown and concentrated sweetness. And fig jam, with its luscious sticky sweetness, is well worth making too.

Here's a few ideas for delicious, easy ways to use fresh figs(you can substitute dried for some of the baked dishes, when figs aren't in season--the dried figs just take a bit longer to bake):

For entrees: wrap a slice prosciutto or similar air-dried ham around half a fresh fig; prepare a plate of pate, saucisson(salami)olives, and figs, split in half; figs and cheese are also wonderful.

For main course: figs and lamb chops: bake some fresh figs, split in half, in a little butter, white wine and a touch honey, for about 20 mins, meanwhile grill or fry some chops, then serve with figs. Roast duck is also delicious with a similar fig and honey sauce, and grilled pork belly, Puy lentils and grilled figs are also fantastic together. Indeed figs go well with meat generally, including game.

For dessert: fig fool: Beat a couple of egg whites till stiff, add sugar, beat till glossy. Beat some cream, fold in cream into the egg white mix, add drop vanilla essence. Cut some figs in half or quarters, arrange in layers in a bowl or dish with the fool. You can also bake figs and serve with icecream, creme fraiche or mascarpone-type cheese. You can also make lots of cakes using figs, very often with the addition of nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts which from time immemorial have often partnered figs. The Ancient Romans for instance were mad about a rich walnut, fig and honey cake that featured proudly at great banquets.

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