The Local Food Report: figs

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.


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.


Lorraine Luizzi said...

What a fantastic post! It was SO informative...my husband has been talking about getting a fig tree. I'd love to travel down to Wellfleet and look at yours and/or Charlie's and Carol's! We are Italian-Americans and remember both of our grandparents growing fig trees and knowing exactly what to do... and when to do it.
I am a faithful reader of your posts, and enjoy each and every one of them.
Hugs to Sally.


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Elspeth! How timely! We just harvested our first two figs of the season. Our tree set about 150 or so, but then the weather began to cool and we were afraid none would ripen. Then, last week, miracle of miracles!

We won't get all 150, I'm sure, but we'll make the most of the few we do get.

Unknown said...

Hello, I just stumbled across this page and seen you grow figs.I'd love to trade some fig cuttings with you if you are interested .I have about 30 varieties of fig trees I can take cuttings from and I also have a large collection of tomato seeds and other garden seeds I can share with you also. my email is ediblelandscaping.sc@gmail.com if you want to talk more, thanks and I look forward to hearing back from you.

Elspeth said...

Hi Daniel,

I do have two small trees, but I don't think they're big enough for cuttings. Do you live around here? Charlie might be up for sharing.

All the best,

Fred Kavalier said...

If you're looking for something to do with a glut of figs, you should definitely try this Fig Chutney recipe. I have just made some, and it was so wonderful I immediately made a second batch with 2 kg of figs from Turkey. The recipe comes from the Ardeche in southern France and I found it on the website of my friend Mary Dowey: www.provencefoodandwine.com. The recipe is here:

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