By Catharine Kaufman
The season is short and sweet for fresh and fragrant figs. So grab a basket at the market while they last — rich and luscious dark purple Black Missions, golden nutty-flavored Calimyrnas or greenish yellowy-skinned Kadotas.
Here’s a primer on everything you need to know so you can fully enjoy these California gems.
In the beginning
The fig has many honorable mentions in the Bible, while the fig leaf was probably the first “underwear” worn by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden — the original Fruit of the Loom. Figs in ancient times were heralded as the cure for assorted ailments with fountain-of-youth properties to fortify the young, maintain the elderly, and even reduce wrinkles. The Greeks revered figs so much that laws were passed forbidding the export of these coveted treasures.
Figs made their way to California in 1759 when the Spanish missionary fathers planted them at the San Diego Mission, ergo the name “Mission” figs. Fig trees were planted at each new mission, going northward through California. In 1882, the Smyrna variety was brought to the San Joaquin valley from Turkey and was renamed Calimyrna after its new homeland.
Figs are fat, sodium and cholesterol-free, low in calories, but high in immune-boosting anti-oxidants, especially carotenes and luteins for eye health, Vitamins A, E, K and nerve calming B that also helps metabolize carbs, proteins and fats.
Figs are full of chlorogenic acid to lower blood sugar levels along with minerals, including copper, potassium, zinc and iron for cardiac and cellular wellbeing.
Great as bone boosters, a cup of dried figs has as much calcium as a tall glass of milk. Also loaded with ficin, a digestive enzyme makes the fig nature’s X-Lax. In fact, figs have the highest dietary fiber than any other dried or fresh fruit.
Toss these nutritional nuggets into your smoothies, muffins, crepes and pancakes, oatmeal, biscotti, banana and pumpkin breads, fill your bird with a fig and apricot stuffing, chop into quinoa, tabouli, basmati rice or risottos, whip up a fig chutney, toss an arugula, candied walnut and fig salad, or relish them straight-up raw and whole.
• When buying fresh ones make sure they are plump and soft with green, brown or purple-hued skin. If they have a sour smell, the sugars have fermented and the fruit is spoiled.
• Fresh figs should be refrigerated and eaten within 5 days of purchase.
• Packaged dried figs can be stored tightly wrapped at room temperature.
• California fresh figs are in season August-October, depending on the variety, while dried ones can be enjoyed year round.
Fun Fig Facts
Figs can only be pollinated by fig wasps, and these insects can only breed inside figs, a mutual relationship in existence for 60 million years.
Botanically figs are not a fruit, rather a cluster of flowers (the crunchy little seeds) wrapped around a juicy pulp.
Fig puree is a perfect substitute for fats in baked goods.
California produces 100 percent of the country’s dried figs, 98 percent of fresh ones.
Figs made their commercial debut with the launching of Fig Newtons in 1892.
So Cal climes are ideal for growing fig trees. In fact, these fruit trees are considered one of the easiest to grow whether in the ground or in potted containers. Figs require well-drained, fertile loamy soil, plenty of moisture and protection from cool winds.
They need full sunlight and elbowroom (15-20 feet apart), along with annual fertilizing and pruning in late winter before their growth. Figs should be picked only when ripe as they stop ripening once off the tree.
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