I know these are ready when the bats start making a pilgrimmage from Ripponlea House to my back garden. They’re huge in this area – the bats, not the figs – so large you can feel the gush of summer air under their wings as they circle in twilight and settle at the top of the tree. They totally freak the cat out – she quivers in terror under the outdoor table, or scurries inside with ears back and head low. Thankfully our dog has more gumption, and guards the lower branches so we actually have a harvest to work with. Only in the morning can I see the damage they have wrought – everything plump and higher than a retriever’s jump is tasted. They have decorated the top half of my expansive, but only 12-year-old tree with corpulent blooms – open and pink half-eaten fruit left for birds and bugs to devour in the sunlight.
My fig is 12 years old, and I have no idea what variety it is. It grew itself out of the old compost pile. It was nearly two metres tall by the time we discovered it, so we decided to leave it alone and remove the debris to give it more space (don’t judge our observation skills please, we had very young children and the rambling house and garden were sorely in need of a clean-up and renovation). It’s been fruiting for over ten years – plump, green-skinned beauties that are usually ripe by mid February. The fruit is sweet enough to eat raw, but caramelizes deliciously when cooked. The skin is edible, but I usually peel off the thin green outer layer, leaving just enough pithy white casing around the pink innards to hold its shape.
Black figs are also available in Melbourne, and you’ll usually see the Black Genoa on the shelves here. From late February they’re probably grown locally, and they’ll last for a couple more months, long enough to partner with a creamy blue cheese and some Rutherglen Tokay when the nights start to get a little chilly. Those figs you bought for Christmas lunch? Sorry to tell you, they’re shipped in.
How to pick a good one…
Select fruit that smells fragrant and sweet, free of fermented characters. The skin should be clear of spots and dry, with smooth, unbroken skin. Feel should be slightly soft but not mushy – if your thumb print does not bounce back, it’s over-ripe.
How to keep them…
Figs will continue to ripen after they are picked. For store-bought figs, try and just buy enough to eat over the coming two days, and keep them in a plate on the counter. If you are like me, and have a tree beseiged by bats, it’s a good idea to pick just before they are ripe. Figs will ripen over a few days on the counter. Give them space because as they ripen because they bruise easily. You might even want to place a paper towel underneath to stop any moisture getting in and encouringing rapid rot.
You can keep figs in the fridge, but they seem to be very good at losing their own flavour and absorbing fridge smells. If you must, put a paper towel in a sealable container and lay them flat in one layer.
Don’t even think about freezing figs – you need to put them in syrup or dehydrate them first, so you may as well go the whole hog and preserve them properly. There’s a super easy recipe for fig jam here, or, if you like a bit more spice and something versatile enough to use with main courses rather than just on toast and with cheese, try this fig chutney. I just found this recipe for brandied figs, and this looks like the perfect one for a custard partnership, as well as for popping on a cheese board. If you want to try drying figs, try this link here.
How to cook them…
Figs cook quickly, and unless they are bound in syrup, tend to lose flavour rapidly. Leave the skin on if possible, unless you want rapid disintegration. If you want to remove a tough green skin, just peel the outer layer off and leave the pith – it’s usually very tender. Figs might have a high sugar content on paper, but it doesn’t really seem to translate when you cook them. Make sure you taste your recipes for sweetness and balance.
Flavours they go with…
Did you know that figs are actually flowers, not fruit? It’s no surprise then that when served raw they are quite floral in character, often with a honey or nectar taste. Some figs have a slightly gourd-like character, akin to cucumber or melon. The skins can sometimes be a little bitter and vegetal, but overall the flavour profile is very mild, so when combining figs with other flavours keep in mind they might be overwhelmed.The sweetness often needs to be balanced with something salty to make both elements shine. Combinations that work well:
- almonds, honeycomb, Brie
- Ricotta, sesame seeds (not too many), golden syrup
- prosciutto, cucumber, aged Champage
- labneh, rocket and macadamias
When cooked however, the sugars caramelise and intensify all these flavours – you can use bolder combinations
- Stilton and fortified wine
- Crispy duck, Cognac and tamari
- Roasted lamb, balsamic vinegar and lemon thyme
- Cumin, tamarind and yoghurt
I made a fig frangipane pie on the weekend, and as hard as I could, I tried to fight my carb craving. ‘Twas impossible with this one. Even my teenage son, who thinks figs are the most ridiculous excuse for a fruit that he has ever encountered, went in for seconds.
Some other favourites: