Charlie says old Mrs. Capello used to bury her trees, the way they did in Italy. You dug around the roots, she said—about three quarters of the way—until you found the main root. This was in late fall, around the time you might start to expect cold weather, a frost. You left the main root buried and folded the rest of the tree to the ground. They're very flexible, figs. Then you buried the whole tree, limbs and all, after giving it a little trimming. It stayed there, safe, until spring.
That was the old way.
Charlie doesn't do it like that—his partner Carol chops the trees down to three feet, maybe four. They don't prune them into single trunk trees, either, but instead let the suckers grow up from the base. It makes them less productive, maybe, the fruit a little smaller, but it means they can give new starts to friends. There must be dozens of fig owners in Wellfleet by now, Charlie says.
I got a start from a neighbor a few years back. It isn't producing yet, but it's taken off recently. It was in a pot and now the ground, and based on the leaves, it's a descendent of one of Charlie's. He has two trees—horse figs, Mrs. Capello called them—two starts from the originals she brought over from Italy. They're right outside his house, on the side that's south facing, and some years, even with the trimming, the growth reaches the second story windows. It's nothing, he says, in a year to get 8, 10, even 12 feet.
And then there are the figs. Figs are not a fruit, not technically. They are something more particular, more unusual, called an infructescence—a bud that swells off every scion, flowers internally, and turns into the juicy delight we call a fig. That pink middle part—that seedy, stringy carpet—that's the bloom initially. As the swell they grow to about an inch and a half in diameter, then the skin turns brown and begins to crack, and then they're sweet and ready.
The time is now. While I was over at Charlie and Carols', admiring their trees and learning to take care of my own fig, I spotted the first ripe one of the season. I ate it, right there, still warm from the sun. It was starting to crack around the base, like the one you see up there, and it was perfectly sweet.
Charlie likes to cook his on the "barbe." He wraps them in prosciutto, drags them through fresh honey, and stuffs them with some fresh feta. Then he puts them over the coals for a few minutes, and eats them hot, melty. It's the best way, he says, the way they eat them in Italy.
I've never had them like that. I've had them with gorgonzola, fresh, and a little bit of sweet balsamic or honey. But my favorite way is the way they do them in salad at Winslow's. They use Black Mission figs, but the brown ones work just as well. You take arugula, toss it with some olive oil and balsamic, then halve the figs. You stuff them with gorgonzola, then lightly toast strips of prosciutto—until they're just crispy. Then you crumble these strips over top, toss it all, and dig in. It's heavenly.
Charlie says it's three to four years until a start produces figs. Next fall, I'll be ready.
FIG & ARUGULA SALAD WITH TOASTED PROSCIUTTO & GORGONZOLA
Figs and prosciutto are a classic combination. Add arugula and gorgonzola, a little bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and you've got dinner.
1/2 pound arugula
really good extra virgin olive oil (I like unfiltered, and olio nuovo is even better) to taste
balsamic vinegar to taste
6 fresh figs, halved
a handful of crumbled gorgonzola
4 slices prosciutto, lightly toasted/pan-fried and torn into small pieces
salt and pepper to taste
Toss the arugula with olive oil and vinegar. Layer the figs, gorgonzola, and prosciutto on top and season with salt and pepper to taste. Dig in!
P.S. For a list of local farms & farmers' markets with figs, click on over here.