First, the fig
“The figs are falling from the trees; they are good and sweet; and, as they fall, their red skin bursts. I am a north wind to ripe figs. […] It is autumn about us, and pure sky and afternoon. Behold what fullness there is around us! And out of such overflow it is beautiful to look out upon distant seas.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
It’s rumored that Plato called figs “the philosopher’s fruit.” Makes sense to me. Hailing from the Middle East (philosophy’s birthplace, in the Greek colonies), they’re now thought to be one of the first cultivated foods, predating wheat by perhaps a thousand years. Their deep past is matched by their symbolic futurity: cut one open and you’ll see the strands of innumerable flowers hidden inside, like a mysterious knowledge awaiting the burst into ripeness, the nectar released just prior to decay. Not for nothing do we find figs amidst the piles of fruit and bones in the Dutch still-life paintings that pair abundance with mortality. Then there’s the fig wasp; the opening at the bottom of each fruit evolved as a door for these visitors, who pollinate the flowers and carry out their own reproduction inside—a suggestive symbiosis between creatures associated with pain and the pleasure of natural luxury.
If the idea of wasp babies in your food concerns you, don’t worry. The fig varieties we carry are all parthenocarpic, which means they don’t have to be fertilized—thus, no wasps. Eating a ripe fig is likely to drive other concerns from your mind anyway: nothing tastes like the honeyed, soft and slightly tangy flesh of the Black Mission, the brown sugar tone of the chewier green Kadota, or the subtly grassy flavor of the Brown Turkey. I have to exercise some willpower to keep from eating dozens of them at a time. The philosopher Walter Benjamin appears to have felt the same way: “I couldn’t stop eating them and was forced to get rid of the mass of plump fruits as quickly as possible. But that could not be described as eating; it was more like a bath, so powerful was the smell of resin that […] impregnated the air through which I carried my burden.”
Fortunately for us, the fig is highly nutritious, one of the best plant sources of calcium, fiber, and various minerals. Both the flavor and the high antioxidant content increase with ripeness. A firmer fig is fine, but can’t compare with one that’s very soft, about to split, releasing beads of clear nectar. If you’re squeamish about squishy fruit, just think of it as nature’s jam.
Figs are wonderful with prosciutto, blue cheese and fresh goat cheese. I’ve been eating them with labneh, a fresh homemade yogurt cheese. Poach them in red wine or brandy, and try the syrup over ice cream. They’re delicious with balsamic vinegar and arugula. Firmer figs will ripen if left unrefrigerated on a plate, but I usually toss them into my oatmeal; they melt down and sweeten the pot. For me, though, nothing beats just eating them, thin skin and all, and letting them my thoughts drift toward where little animals of possibility shine like sweet figs, baubles on the skin of what’s to come.
As I write, at the beginning of September, the crop in California is doing well, and there should still be figs available here by the time you read this.
While I’m trying to convince you to eat squishy figs, let me sing the praises of imperfect-looking fruit in general. If fruit looks perfect, it’s usually been grown less for flavor than for successful storage and shipping. Especially in the local season, I’m drawn to spotty apples with a more burnished look. They smell like an orchard or an apple barrel, with complex flavors and surfaces that reflect all the sun, wind, rain and insects the tree has welcomed or endured, the whole year compressed into the ripe harvest of autumn.
Many of our fall apples and pears come from farms in southern Wisconsin (including Future Fruit and Ela Orchards). Here, forward-thinking growers are rediscovering or inventing sustainable practices that produce delicious fruit formerly thought foreign to our region. They’re experimenting and sharing their knowledge, and those delicious spotty apples reflect work that’s substantially changing the food map of the U.S., producing beautiful places and leaving a legacy for the future.
My work has taught me to find exceptional flavor in other places I might have missed, even with a sense of imperfection as essential to beauty. For example:
- The best cantaloupes and muskmelons have started to soften and darken in places.
- A soft, yellowing lime is juicier than a firm, shiny one.
- The pale “ambering” on late-season green grapes means great sweetness. Also, try the little shriveled “raisins” that sometimes show up on the bunches.
- Plums and pluots, when they start to wrinkle on top and soften, turn into balls of delicious juice.
- A ripe ataulfo mango looks ugly on the outside, but these small, wrinkled yellow mangoes are very sweet and tart.
- Look for the rare Blenheim heirloom apricots next time they come around. The exceptional flavor may make their pale, gold duskiness more attractive than the rosy blush of the usual apricot.
- When the winter brings persimmons back around, treat yourself to a ripe Hachiya. If it retains any firmness, expect a mouth-puckering, unpleasant astringency—but wait until it feels like a water balloon, maybe even with some black spots, and you’ll find the sweetest custard-like fruit inside.
Amazing tastes and smells wait in wildness, in the ways we ate when we had to pluck fruit right from the tree. Those sensuous experiences may show you beauty in places you’d found ugly. You may taste the history and the rich thought in a soft, sweet fig, or—biting into a locally-grown apple or pear—smell it in this year’s autumn the future’s ripening.