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Figs - Recipes, History & Facts

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The Sensuous Fig

by Margaret E. Walker

The fig tree is the symbol of abundance, of fertility, of sweetness. Anyone who has had a fig tree knows that it appeals to the birds.  Garden stores sell netting to protect the tree, but the fig tree is so abundant with the fruits it offers that there is no reason to NOT share with the birds. 

People in temperate climates plant fig trees.  Many in colder climates have been known to bring the tree indoors during the winter dormant season, its roots wrapped in burlap.  We love this tree.

Figs -Genus

French, figue; German, feige; Italian fico; Latin, ficus; Greek, sykon

The Moraceae consist of Figs ficus carica, Mulberries morus alba, rubra, nigra and macroura and the Che cundrania tricuspidata. Ficus Carica, the common fig tree, is a member of the mulberry family, with distinctive lobed palmate leaves and pear-shaped fruit - green, brown or purple with a thin to moderately tough skin covering a fleshy inside. It hardly seems possible that these three fruits can be related but here we have another of nature's mysteries. The trees and leaves all have similarities but the fruits are quite different.

Figs in History

Figs appear in the earliest recorded history. When Cato advocated the conquest of Carthage, he used as his crowning argument the advantage of acquiring fruits as glorious as the North African figs, specimens of which he pulled from his toga as exhibits in the Roman Senate. These fruits have become so popular in America that many varieties - purplish, brownish and greenish-are grown in profusion.

Of the three members of the Moraceae family, the fig has spread most widely. It was first recorded in the tablets of Lagash in Sumer (2738-2371) BC and has since appeared in the recorded history from Egypt to Greece, where it was a staple food of both rich and poor. The fig was such a staple food that Egyptian armies are recorded as having cut down the figs and vines of their enemies, and whole baskets of figs have been discovered among the tomb offerings of dynastic kings. Homer wrote of figs when he described the orchard of Alcinous, visited by Ulysses, which featured figs, olives, pomegranates, apples and pears. The poet Alexis of Thuria in the 4th century celebrated the fare of the average Greek which included "that God-given inheritance of our mother country, darling of my heart, a dried fig." Cleopatra ended her life with an asp brought to her in a basket of figs.

The fig probably originated in Asia Minor, and has been highly regarded from the earliest times as a major contributor to the diets of many countries. Figs were one of the crops that became known in China during the T'ang dynasty which rose to power in the 700's BC. Its importance in Hellenic culture and economic life is second only that that of the grape and the olive.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79) records several stories about fig trees in Rome. He asserts that a sacred fig tree grows in the Roman Forum. Alluding to the myth that Rome was founded by the twins, Romulus and Remus, who suckled on a she-wolf, Pliny tells us that, "This tree is known as Ruminalis because the she-wolf was discovered beneath it giving her teats (rumis in Latin) to the infant boys."Another fig tree grows in the Forum where a chasm had opened up. Soothsayers had predicted that only by throwing Rome's greatest treasure into the chasm, would it be filled. Marcus Curtius, mounted on his noble steed, asserted that he would fill the hole with the greatest treasures - virtue, a sense of duty, and his own death. He leapt into the hole and the earth closed around him. According to legend a self-seeded fig tree sprouted here.

In the first half of the sixteenth century, the fig was brought to England by Cardinal Pole, a few years before Cortez introduced the tree to Mexico. Fig trees reached North America in about 1790.

Fig (Ficus) Trees

The tree is deciduous with large, rough textured leaves which have three lobes. We have all seen these leaves tailor-made to cover parts of statues. I am not sure whether this was to preserve the dignity of the statue or that of the viewing public, or perhaps it was only a reflection of the old Biblical story of Adam and Eve. The tree tolerates a wide range of temperatures, making it suitable for cultivation in a wide variety of landscapes and climates. Hot dry summers and cool moist winters are perfect for a thriving fig tree.

In Australia there are also number of wild fig trees, the largest of which is the Morton Bay fig which grows a huge canopy of glossy green leaves that covers a massive grey trunk and huge spreading roots. The fruits are small and hard but loved by the bird population. With its smooth grey arms widespread, it easily supports the weight of climbing children. In spring with its leafy canopy it can be a hiding place from which children can peep outwards at the world. In autumn, it gives a wonderful crop of fruit to be eaten fresh or preserved for later pleasure. I had a wonderful fig tree, when I lived in Murray Bridge. Its branches spread so wide and strong that I could sit perched in the upper branches to seek out its fruit, at just the right state of ripeness, for fig jam. I picked the figs when the bottom two thirds of the fig was a pale shade of bronze and the top one third at the stem end was still green.

The jam was more likely to set well, and not be too dark. If the fruit was left to hang on the tree for any longer, I would find that the ants had invaded the centre of the fruit in order to pollinate others.

Now I don't know about you, but I always picked my figs before the birds had a chance to damage them, which meant being quite precise about the extent of ripening. It's not that I begrudge the birds a feed, but the idea of allowing the birds to eat the delicious things smacks of wicked waste. Though the Egyptians packed baskets of figs among tomb offerings , I prefer to make them into preserves and see them sit in bronze glory on my pantry shelf, or better still put spoonfuls of the sweet sticky stuff on my hot buttered toast for breakfast.

Figs - health, properties and propagation

The Egyptians, being preoccupied with their digestion, had a habit of fasting. The fig, having mild laxative properties, appealed to them as food which was delicious as well as good for them. Figs are rich in calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium. Vitamin C and the B group vitamins are also present in small quantities. They are also high in fibre. Figs have the highest overall mineral content of all common fruits. A 40 gram (1/4 cup) serving provides 244 mg of potassium (7% of the DV), 53 mg of calcium (6% of the DV) and 1.2 mg of iron (6% of the DV). Figs are fat-free, sodium-free and cholesterol-free.

Ants are great pollinators. Because the fig, actually the flower of the fig tree, attract ants through the small opening in the end of the fruit. The ants go in search of the sweetness offered, picking up pollen on their feet. This is brought to the next fruit.

The trade caravan routes of old spread figs far and wide, although possibly not as far and wide as the bird population of the world has managed to do over the centuries, with their propensity for eating the seeds through one end and popping them out of the other end with a little dose of fertilizer to ensure their survival in a new place.

Figs are among the tastiest and most versatile of fruits, happy in company with wine, honey, sugar, thin prosciutto, sweet spices such as ginger, cinnamon and cloves and the sharpness of lemon and orange.

Figs in the Bible

The Bible abounds with mentions of figs.  "The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." --Song of Solomon 2: 13.

"And they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day." Genesis 3:7

"They shall sit every man under his vine, and under his fig tree." Micah 4: 4




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