I never know what to make of figs. They look slightly obscene, but then purple always does (think of aubergines). They are so delicate, shaped like an engorged teardrop, with that satiny, touchy skin. Each fruit contains, not seeds, but a mass of curled-up flowers that will never be. Certain things they like, I’ve noticed. Like honey, a scattering of thyme leaves, a slake of lemon juice, walnuts. I feel on safer ground when they are tarred by the heat of the oven, reduced to their buttery essence. They blister and bead – droplets of sap line the fruit’s seams. They eventually cave in, turning to jam with only the slightest provocation.
Of course if you have a fig tree, you need do nothing but tear one open and suckle, especially if it has already been warmed by the sun. Forget fruit salads, and cold of any sort. Figs are usually a late summer crop, but ‘breva’ figs* (meaning ‘first fruit of the fig tree’) are with us now. They grow on last year’s wood, a couple of months before this season’s crop ripens. They are not quite as spectacular as the ‘higo’ (second crop), not quite as burstingly succulent, less beauteous to the eye, but they are worth investigating.
I first tried breva figs when I was lost on a mountainside in southern Spain. I wasn’t particularly hungry or thirsty, but they were hanging about us as we tramped along the road and so it passed the time. I was wearing corduroy shorts – a fashion fad that lasted about a week in 1991 – and in the midday sun it was like wearing a pair of blankets. I remember the fig’s sweetness, and the way we popped each plump little confection whole into our mouths, the flesh turning into a dewy, flowery syrup. So I associate them with heat and dust and a certain wildness of spirit.
Our house, bought for £2,000 in Las Alpujarras in Spain, was white and chalky and if you brushed past a wall, part of it would come off on your clothes. Swallows nested in the beams. The rats never came upstairs. They preferred the bathroom that had been built in the middle of the cellar, with a makeshift wall around it, like a turret. We had no transport so hitched lifts with the postwoman or a friendly tractor driver, or walked. Occasionally, somebody would throw fruit through our window. This was if they were unfriendly and wanted us to go away. Locals who liked us, and owned fincas in the area, came to the door and handed us their harvest directly. Tomatoes, oranges, lemons, peppers, garlic, figs, sometimes nuts, everything was saddled to the mule standing morosely in the background while they did the deed.
Children played outside our window until 2am. The afternoons were always dead while the whole village slept. Pigs were slaughtered, also outside our window, and the children continued to play under a canopy of dead pig, strung up by its hooves. But it was also easy to disappear. The village was surrounded by farmed terraces, and acequias – streams of melted snow from the Sierra Nevadas – and we dunked ourselves in whenever the heat got too much. No one was about, apart from the local shepherd and his goats, the bell around their scruffy necks sounding their arrival. We picked figs and thought nothing of it.
Figs do well in southern California, having come here in the eighteenth century via Spanish missionaries, hence the name, Black Mission. I am being quite brutish, roasting them with gay abandon, but there are many applications for these treacled beauties and they hang around for ages; dolloped on ice cream, smushed through a sieve and turned into fig butter, partnered with tangy goat’s cheese, piled on hot, yeasty bread, or thrown into a bread dough or cake batter. Or simply potted up and eaten one by one like sticky, gummy candies.
Roasted figs with honey and thyme
I committed the cardinal sin of leaving fresh figs in the oven overnight so they looked like tarmac. They tasted divine, though, so I suggest you do the same.
12 figs (or thereabouts)
3 tbs of clear honey
Walnut-sized knob of butter
A posy of thyme (about 15 sprigs)
Juice and zest of a lemon
1 roasting pan
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Bruise the lemon zest and thyme leaves together using a wooden spoon or pestle and mortar. Fish out any woody stems, but don’t worry too much if some remain. Put the butter, honey, thyme leaves, lemon juice and zest in a small saucepan. Heat gently, stirring until liquid. Take off the heat and leave to infuse for about 15 minutes. Cut off the stem at the top of each fig. Cut a deep cross down into each one, then squeeze the sides to expose the flesh. Place them upright in a roasting pan. It’s fine if the pan is crowded, but each fig should be resting on the bottom. Pour over the liquid. Roast for at least half an hour, then turn the oven off and let the figs stew in their own juices. Because first-crop figs can be a hit-and-miss affair, you can be quite brazen about the roasting, and general neglect here. These are not jewels, and they taste better for the wait.
“They say that the Fig-tree, as well as the Bay-tree, is never hurt by lightning; and also if you tie a bull, be he ever so mad, to a Fig-tree, he will quickly become tame and gentle. As for such figs that come from beyond the sea, I have little to say, because I write not of exotics; yet some authors say, the eating of them makes people lousy.“
Nich. Culpeper, Gent., The English Physician Enlarged, 1653
* Also known as ‘breba’ figs.