The sign read “Aujourd’hui, Omelette aux Girolles, Tarte aux Figues.” I just got a glimpse of it as I rounded a corner, speeding along a windy road in the back-country above Cannes on a sunny late morning in July. Fig tart? Wild mushroom omelet? I grabbed the funny gearshift that protruded from the dashboard of my rented Renault, downshifted and looked for a place to turn around. It was not too early for lunch.
I’ve turned in my tracks for fresh figs on more than one occasion. They’ve nourished me on steep summer mountain walks in Provence and in Greece, where the trees grow wild and the figs are there for the taking. When I lived in France, summer lunches would either begin with a platter of ripe figs and sliced Cavaillon melon or end with a platter of goat cheese and figs.
I’d discovered the joy of this most sensuous of fruits even before I began my lifelong love affair with France and the Mediterranean, because I had the good fortune to spend 10 years in Austin, Texas, where fig trees grow in many a front yard. The varieties are smaller than California and Mediterranean figs, but no less jammy and delicious.
Here in California, August is the month figs begin to peak. We get a few varieties. The best for eating are the Missions, Brown Turkeys, Kadotas and Celestes. My friend and gardening guru John Lyons has had great results with his Panachee (also known as Panachee Tiger Stripes) tree, which produces a beautiful striped green variety with a bright red, jammy interior.
When figs are ripe, they should give when you press on them. They might display an alluring, syrupy drop if they’ve cracked. If they’re hard, you should leave them out to ripen. Once the ripening begins it will happen very quickly, and they should be eaten within a couple of days.
If you don’t pre-bake the topping, you can sprinkle it directly over the prepared fruit and bake for 40 minutes, or until the topping is golden and crisp.
For the topping:
¼ cup shelled pecans
1 cup rolled oats
¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon firmly packed light brown sugar or turbinado sugar
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) cold butter, cut into ½ -inch pieces
Grated zest of 1 orange
For the figs:
2 pounds fresh ripe figs, stemmed and cut in half lengthwise
⅓ cup mild honey, preferably lavender
2 tablespoons Port
1. Make the crumble topping ahead, if possible: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Cover a baking sheet with parchment.
2. Heat the pecans in a dry skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan or stirring the pecans constantly, until they begin to smell toasty. Remove from the skillet at once and chop coarsely.
3. Mix together the oats, flour, sugar, nutmeg and salt, either in a bowl or in a food processor fitted with the steel blade.
4. Cut in the butter using the pulse action of the food processor, or by taking up the mixture in handfuls and rubbing it briskly between your fingers and thumbs. The mixture should have a crumbly consistency. Stir in the pecans.
5. Spread the topping over the parchment-covered baking sheet in an even layer. Place in the oven and bake 10 minutes.
6. Rotate the pan, stir the topping and bake another 5 to 10 minutes, until the mixture is nicely browned.
7. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Stir in the orange zest. You can keep this in a freezer bag or an airtight container in the freezer for several weeks.
8. Make the fig filling: Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 2-quart gratin or baking dish.
9. Place the figs in the baking dish, cut side up. Drizzle on the honey and douse with the Port. Bake 30 minutes.
10. Sprinkle on the topping and bake another 10 to 15 minutes, until bubbling.
11. Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream, crème fraiche or custard sauce.
Makes 1 tart serving 8
I recommend a classic French pâte sucrée for this tart.
1 9-inch sweet pastry, fully baked
25 grams (¼ cup) almond powder, bread crumbs or crumbled vanilla cookies
1¾ pounds figs, cut in half if small, quartered if large
3 tablespoons raw brown sugar or 2 tablespoons mild honey, such as clover
finely chopped zest of 1 orange, preferably organic
1 tablespoon raw brown sugar (if using honey with the fruit)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
2. Sprinkle the almond powder, bread crumbs or crumbled cookies over the fully baked crust in an even layer. Arrange the figs, stem end pointed up, on top in concentric circles, squeezing them together.
3. Mix together 2 tablespoons of the sugar or the honey and the orange zest. Sprinkle or drizzle over the fruit.
4. Place in the oven and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until the tips of the figs are lightly charred.
5. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, then sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.
Photo: Panachee figs. Credit: John Lyons