Wine Pairings and Peak-Season, Fresh Figs
Those of you who live in the Mediterranean or other fig-growing regions may not realize just how short the fig season is. Essentially, June and August constitute fig season, though they make an occasional hot house appearance around Christmas.
Ah, but figs–like Meyer lemons–are worth the wait and the expense. Indeed, figs are not known as a humble fruit. Ancient Greeks believed the fig was a gift of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. The raucous god Dionysus made the fig sacred.
Indeed, some think the Tree of Life is, in fact, a fig tree. Likewise, Buddha meditated under a Bo tree, which is a type of fig. As for what the Italians said the inner flesh of a fig looks like during the Victorian era… well, you know how the Italians are. And the Victorians, for that matter.
Gods and vanity aside, when you get your hands on peak-fresh produce like the fig, you want to pair it with high-quality ingredients and wine that complements the flavor.
Grilled Cheese with Figs
This is an upscale version of the classic comfort food, grilled cheese sandwiches.
You have many options for this sandwich. I used Brown Turkey figs – because that's what's available in Colorado – with lacy baby Swiss cheese. Because of their relatively mild flavor, Brown Turkey figs also pair well with a young Gouda cheese or Emmentaler. If using Black Mission figs, pair with a tangy cheese such as Edam or Pecorino Romano.
- 2 slices whole wheat bread
- 1 slice baby Swiss cheese
- 2 figs, sliced thick
- Layer the ingredients onto the bread.
- Spray a panini maker with oil.
- Cook until cheese melts.
Wine Pairings for Grilled Cheese With Figs
Wine pairings for the grilled cheese with figs sandwich depends largely on which fig-cheese combination you chose.
Brown Turkey figs with Swiss, Emmentaler, or young Gouda.
- Pinot Grigio: Pinot Grigio comes from the northeastern regions of Italy. Rich with terroir, the grapes take on crisp and refreshing flavors from the soil in which they grow. They carry a perfumed pear, lemon or mineral aroma with pear, apple or lemon on the palette. Choose a light-bodied variety that will be crisp and fruity but not complex enough to overwhelm the delicate flavors of Brown Turkey figs and light cheese.
- Riesling: Rieslings get a bad rap as only producing sweet wines. While this grape often is used to produce a sweet wine, choose one of the more complex vintages such as from the Alsace region. These wines are still floral, but they feature citrus and mineral aromas and citrus-apricot flavors. Choose a semisweet or dry variety from Alsace of even the Columbia Valley in Washington. These wines will complement the cheese without overpowering the delicate sweetness of the Brown Turkey fig.
- Pinot Noir: This notoriously delicate, difficult-to-grow grape pairs well with the notoriously difficult-to-grow fig. For this pairing, choose one of the fruit-forward varietals such as the Burgundy wines. Easy drinking with flavors and aromas of cherry, raspberry and current, the Burgundy wines pair well with this Mediterranean specialty.
- Shiraz: If using the slightly more pungent young Gouda, pair the sandwich with a Shiraz. Look for a Northern Rhône wine that's fruit-forward with flavors of plum, raisin and blackcurrant. Stay away from the spicy Australia variety unless you've added Prosciutto to the sandwich; the delicate ingredients will otherwise be overpowered.
For the Black Mission fig version of this sandwich, choose a Beaujolais. This light French red wine comes from the Gamay grape. Indeed, this wine features typical grape flavors and little in the way of tannins. The Beaujolais will complement the tangier cheese without competing with the Black Mission figs.
When pressed for time, prosciutto-wrapped figs make for an elegant appetizer. They are simple to make: Wrap a half-slice of prosciutto around a freshly-washed fig. Sprinkle curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve with crackers, toast points or alone.
- Prosecco: Made from the Glera grape, Prosecco is Italy's version of Champagne. With enough acidity and bubbles to stand up to the smoked flavor of the prosciutto, Prosecco complements the savory-rich Parmigiano-Reggiano. The tickling on your tongue also pairs well with the delicate flavor of the figs.
- Chianti: Made mostly from the Sangiovese grape, the crisp, lively flavors pair well with food. Paradoxically savory with cherry-fruit flavors, Chianti wine complements the savory-sweet prosciutto-wrapped figs.
Favorite Aged Ham
What's your favorite aged ham?
What Is Prosciutto?
Prosciutto, which simply means "ham" in Italian, refers to the cured variety.
To make prosciutto, a leg of a hog is salted until the blood is completely drained. It then gets a rinse before being placed in a dry, cool environment to dry for four months. At the end of this time, the meat is completely cured – meaning the salt has penetrated to the bone and the surface is sealed – but it is not aged yet.
At this point, the cured ham is slathered with softened lard and left to cure for a minimum of three months up to three years. The longer–and better–prosciutto is aged, the more pricey the meat.
Prosciutto must come from the Landrace/Great White hog. Weight limit is strict to ensure marbling without excess fat: 154 to 190 kg, or 340 to 420 lbs. The best-known–and tastiest–prosciutto comes from Parma, also the home of Parmesan. Interestingly, Parma hogs subsist by law on whey from the Parmesan cheese-making process. Tough life.
Spain has its own version of prosciutto: Jamón serrano. Incidentally, Croatia also makes a cured, aged ham: pršut.
My personal favorite–better than Prosciutto de Parma, better than Jamón serrano–is the Dalmatinski pršut. This version of prosciutto comes from the southern coast of Croatia, Dalmatia. These pigs come from a Landrace/Yorkshire cross breed and are a mite thinner, weighing in at 120 to 180 kg.
The initial preparation of the Dalmatinski pršut is the same as that of prosciutto. However, when drying, rather than leaving the ham to dry alone, Dalmatinski pršut gets smoked. This no doubt imparts the complex flavor that I favor.
Dalmatinski pršut, like the Adriatic fig, is hard to come by. If you happen to be in Dalmatia, Croatia in the summer, but these two delicacies together and enjoy a truly rare treat. Pair it with a local Croatian wine, preferably a white wine you buy from a home bearing the "Prodaju vinu" sign, meaning home-made wine. In a pinch, pick up wine at the green market.
Types of Figs
Brown Turkey Figs: These figs feature a brownish-purple skin and a mild flavor. They look like Black Mission figs, but they are usually green around the stem and are a lot less sweet. Brown Turkey figs are easy to find in fig season.
Black Mission Figs: The Black Mission fig is so sweet it's been used as syrup. Black Mission figs are purplish-black with a dark pink color around the stem. They serve well as a dessert or as a foil for a tangy cheese such as feta.
Adriatic Figs: Don't bother looking for Adriatic figs in your local market; I've never seen them outside of Croatia and, maybe, Italy. Maybe. Pale green and beautiful, they only taste good when ripe, at which point they are too fragile to ship. If you happen to be in the Mediterranean during the summer, look for the juicy sweet, delectable Adriatic fig.
Calimyrna Figs: Greenish-yellow, these figs feature a mild nutty flavor. You can find them in warm climates but, like the Adriatic fig, they don't ship well.
Kadota Figs: Kadota figs are creamy-amber when they're peak-fresh. These are the American attempt at the Italian fig called "Dattato." Because they are seedless, they can and dry well. Their flavor is mild and not too sweet.