Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
How Old Are Figs?
The fig (Ficus carica), a cousin of the mulberry, is native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The fruit is not only luxuriously sweet and fragrant; it has been the centerpiece of many of the major religions of mankind.
"No other plants have held such sway over human imagination. They feature in every major religion and have influenced kings and queens, scientists and soldiers. They played roles in human evolution and the dawn of civilisation. These trees have not only witnessed history; they have shaped it. If we play it right, they could even enrich our future."
— Mike Shanahan, BBC Earth, January 17, 2017
It is said that Buddha was enlightened while sitting under the canopy of a fig tree. Dried figs were interred with the Egyptian Pharaohs to sustain them in the afterlife. They appear in numerous stories of Greek and Roman mythology, and they are mentioned in the Bible more than any other plant.
Were Figs the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden?
From where did the idea originate that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was an apple? Let's review the story.
We are told in Genesis that Adam and Eve are living the perfect life in Eden. They may eat fruit from any tree except one, "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Guess what? They eat the forbidden fruit and are expelled from paradise.
The original Hebrew says only "fruit," but in latter-day Western art, ranging from serious religious paintings to about a million cartoons, the item in question is invariably depicted as an apple. I don't think so. My vote is that it was a fig.
Think about it. Figs possess a honey-like (Heavenly) aroma, they're enticingly, luxuriously sweet, and after that first indiscretion, Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves.
Not Your Typical Tree
Figs are an oddity in the plant kingdom—they’re actually more flower than fruit. You’ve probably always thought that those crunchy bits in a fig are seeds. Actually, they are a maze of many clusters of flowers contained within a large bulbous stem. If the flowers are internal, how are they pollinated? Here’s the story.
The World's Top 10 Producers of Figs
|Country||Annual Production, in Tons|
Most Popular Fig Varieties
- Black Mission: The black mission originated in Spain and was introduced to San Diego, California, in 1768 by Franciscan missionaries. The flesh is dark pink, and it smells and tastes like honey. They gift us with two harvests each year—once in early summer and again in October. They are a favorite for drying.
- Brown turkey: This Texas fig is perhaps the easiest to grow; it survives cold winters that would kill other fig varieties. It has brownish-purple skin, pale pink flesh, and a subtle mild flavor.
- Calimyrna: This large fruit is greenish-gold with a distinct nutty flavor. It’s best eaten fresh and shines on cheese or charcuterie plates.
- Fiorone di Torre Canna: A large, dark green fig grown in the Apulian area of Italy. Harvest occurs in May-June. The flesh is brilliant red and very sweet. This fruit is best eaten fresh.
- Syka Vavronas Markopoulou Messongion: This late-harvest fig (August-September) is self-pollinating. It grows in the Attica prefecture of Greece and is regarded as one of their finest figs. The black skin encloses dark burgundy-hued flesh.
- Kadota: This not-so-sweet, nearly seedless fig works well in salads or mixed with other fruits for jam or preserves.
- Figue de Solliès: This fig of the French region Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur offers an explosion of sweet-tart flavor. It’s exquisitely juicy and fragrant, with an aroma reminiscent of watermelon, honeydew, and strawberries. They pair perfectly with the rich meat of wild game, fatty foie gras, salmon, or cheese. Figue de Solliès roasted with Roquefort is sheer poetry.
Are Figs Healthy?
Figs can be eaten fresh or dried; both are rich in antioxidants and give your bones a health boost with calcium and magnesium. Here’s a chart that shows what you get when you eat a fig.
Nutrition: Fresh vs. Dried Figs
|Fresh California Mission Figs (1 serving = 4)||Dried Figs (1 serving = 3)|
- Fig trees don’t display blossoms. The flower is inside the fruit.
- There are 750 known ficus species in the world.
- Nearly every species of fig tree is pollinated by its own distinct species of fig wasp, each a fascinating example of co-evolution.
- Although the average female fig wasp is less than two millimeters long, she must often travel tens of kilometers in less than 48 hours to lay her eggs in another fig—a truly heroic journey!
- Figs have played prominent roles in every major modern religion, including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.
- Some fig species are trees, others are vines, shrubs, and even epiphytes. (An epiphyte is one plant that grows on another plant, but is not parasitic.)
- Fig puree can be used to replace fat in baked goods.
- California produces 100 percent of the nation’s dried figs and 98 percent of the fresh figs.
- The early Olympic athletes used figs as training food.
- Figs were presented as laurels to the early Olympics winners, becoming the first Olympic “medal.”
- Ripe figs are approximately 80 percent water and thus are very fragile and perishable.
- Figs made their first commercial product appearance with the 1892 introduction of Fig Newtons cookies.
1. Simple Fig Jam
Our first recipe is one of the basics that will help you utilize figs in so many of your recipes. Simple fig jam uses the skin and fruit so that pectin doesn't have to be added to the mix. Fresh lemon brightens the flavor and sugar helps thicken. Use this jam on toast, as a baste on chicken or pork, on a cheese platter, or even as a topping on ice cream.
2. Figgy Barbecue Sauce
Dried figs are used to make this figgy barbecue sauce. The sweetness of California mission figs is balanced with the tangy tartness of balsamic vinegar. Garlic provides a subtle bite and bay leaf a savory, herbal note. You can use this "cue" on anything barbecued—it's superb on chicken and pork, but we like it on lamb, burgers, or even tofu.
3. Fig and Feta Salad With Toasted Walnuts
Use any fresh fig variety for this summery fig and feta salad (the brown turkey fig is a very good choice). I love the contrast of flavors and textures in this dish—the sweetness of the figs, the creamy feel and salty taste of the feta cheese, and the umami from the toasted walnuts. By the way, don't skip the step of toasting the walnuts. It really makes a difference.
You can layer this on a bed of arugula or romaine lettuce; add some diced cooked chicken breast (perhaps from a rotisserie chicken) to make this a complete meal.
4. Roasted Sweet Potato, Fig, and Kale Salad
Once again toasted walnuts make an appearance but (in my humble opinion) this salad has a more autumnal vibe. Fresh figs roast with sweet potatoes in a hot oven to take on a golden hue and caramelized flavor. Kale, that nutritional powerhouse, adds flavor and color. Pumpkin and walnuts seeds give this salad crunch and a sweet-savory dressing of cinnamon, maple syrup, cider, and sea salt ties all the flavors together. Roasted sweet potato-fig-kale salad is gluten-free and vegan.
5. Balsamic Fig Chicken Marsala
This recipe begins where just about every recipe should—"Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat until crisp." They had me at bacon. Then bone-in chicken thighs (the best kind of chicken, in my opinion) are sauteed in the same pan.
Marsala, figs, mushrooms, and balsamic then join in the fun to create a sweet-savory-salty sauce. Balsamic fig chicken marsala is a gluten-free and paleo dish pretty enough for company, but easy enough for a weeknight meal. Be sure to have some whipped potatoes, rice, or good crusty bread to mop up every bit of that flavorful sauce.
6. Chicken, Goat Cheese, and Fig Pizza
Balsamic vinegar and figs join together once again to make this sweet-savory chicken, goat cheese, and fig pizza. Melty mozzarella and goat cheeses wrap around warm sweet figs and juicy chicken to create a meal or appetizer that is both hearty and delicious!
7. Pork Tenderloin With Roasted Figs
This pork tenderloin with roasted figs looks quite elegant, but it's so very easy. Pork tenderloin cooks quickly, it's always moist and tender, and it's easy to carve (no bones). A simple marinade punctuated with garlic, Dijon mustard, and a touch of maple syrup flavors the pork.
After a two-hour marinade (or even longer) in the refrigerator, the tenderloins are seared on the stovetop. Fresh figs and a sprig of rosemary are then added to the pan, which is then slipped into a waiting oven and roasted to perfection.
8. Pound Cake Grilled Cheese With Brie, Fig Jam, and Rosemary Butter
I don't know how to categorize this grilled cheese with brie and fig jam sandwich. Is it breakfast, brunch, or a decadent dessert? Did I mention that this sammie doesn't use white bread, sourdough, or even a small-batch artisanal loaf—this sandwich is made with pound cake!
9. Italian Fig Cookies
Italian fig cookies are a traditional Christmas-time treat in southern Italy, especially in Sicily and Palermo where there is a significant Arab influence. Figs were introduced to the region many hundreds of years ago. A food processer will really come in handy in making these cookies.
10. Vanilla Coconut Fig Slice
Our tenth and final recipe is a true show-stopper. These vanilla coconut fig slices are almost too pretty to eat. A walnut-fig base is layered with vanilla coconut cashew cream and then topped with ruby red fresh fig slices. It's raw, vegan, sugar-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free!
- The Spruce
- The Biblical Nutritionist
- Taste Atlas
- Eating Well
- Chelsea Green
- Pop Sugar
© 2021 Linda Lum