The fig is a luxurious fruit of the Mediterranean. I say luxurious because a ripe fig will melt in your mouth; it’s voluptuous, soft and full of flavor. It’s also somewhat of a strange fruit because we don’t actually eat the fruit but, in simple terms, the swollen fertilized bases of the cluster of flowers, turned inside out. Keep your eyes peeled for baskets of figs at the farmers markets because the summer season is the summer of figs.
There are many cultivars but nearly all of the figs in the U.S. come from California, the world’s second-largest producer after Turkey. The fresh fig cultivars you will find at market are the Black Mission, Brown Turkey and Kadota (sometimes you’ll see others). Green figs, sometimes called white figs, are also sold. Figs should be bought ripe and used that day, otherwise refrigerate them immediately.
The generic name of the fig tree ficus comes from ficus Ruminalis, a sacred fig tree under which the legendary founders of Rome — Romulus and Remus — were suckled by a she-wolf. The tree was named for Ruminia, a goddess who watched over suckling animals. The fig itself (Ficus carica) is thought to originate in a fertile region of the Arabian Peninsula because botanical evidence points there as the center of origin. Domesticated millennia ago, the fig spread west to the Mediterranean and east to Persia and arrived in all parts of the world during the Age of Exploration. In Italy, figs are not usually grown as a specialized fruit for harvesting, but grow among grape vines, olive, almond and citrus trees. It is a popular fruit, especially in Algeria, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, where large amounts are exported, dried and made into a paste.
One of the most delightful ways to use figs other than eating them straight away is in a Tuscan crostata di fichi, a fig tart made with short dough (pasta frolla) of flour, sugar, egg, butter and vanilla with fig marmalade spread on top. Look for ripe, fresh black figs for the tart although green figs are fine. This is a wonderful summer dessert.
Crostata di Fichi
Makes 6 to 8 servings
For the short dough (pasta frolla)
1 1/2 cups (1/2 pound) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (1/4 pound) sugar
1/4 pound (1 stick) very cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
For the figs and tart
3/4 pound fresh ripe fresh black or green figs, skins removed, flesh chopped
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1. Prepare the short dough by placing the flour, sugar and butter in a food processor and process until it looks like coarse meal. Add the egg, vanilla and salt and run briefly until it forms into a mass. Turn into a bowl and knead briefly to form a ball of dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
2. In the meantime, place the figs in a small flame-proof casserole or heavy saucepan with the sugar and water and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture becomes as thick as marmalade, about 30 minutes. Pass the figs through a food mill into a bowl.
3. Preheat the oven to 350º F.
4. Butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch-diameter nonstick tart pan with a removable bottom. Remove the ball of dough from the refrigerator and cut off three-quarters of the ball. Roll out the portion you cut off — sprinkling liberally with flour so that it doesn’t stick to the counter surface and turn after each roll — until it is a little larger than the tart pan. With a pastry cutter or spatula, scrape up the sheet of dough and lay it in the tart pan. Don’t worry if it breaks or holes appear, just patch them with excess dough.
5. When the sheet of dough is in the pan, prick it all over with a fork. Spread the fig jam over it with a rubber spatula.
6. Roll out the remaining dough until it is as thin as the first sheet, then cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips and lay the strips in a latticework pattern, interweaving if you like, over the fig jam.
7. Bake the tart until the edges are golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool before serving. Remove the bottom and place the tart on a serving plate.
Photo credit: Eyesonspain.com