I climbed my first fig tree the summer I turned 5. It was a small fig next to our chain-link fence, which provided extra toeholds for my clumsy little feet. The small, sweet figs fit perfectly in my hands, and I could pop them whole into my mouth. It was bliss.
Summer is fig time in South Texas, and a well-tended tree can produce many, many handfuls of sensual pleasure. The birds will eat as many as they can, and who can blame them? Still, based on the number of figs seen languishing on the branch in San Antonio yards, there are plenty of figs to go around and people don’t seem to know what to do with them all. The problem is that they come fast, and they’re gone in about two weeks. Luckily, there are lots of ways to enjoy them.
Figs ripen quickly and don’t ship well, so they tend to be expensive. The trees, however, are inexpensive, long-lived and, with a little care, will bear fruit within a couple of years. (For a list of Common Fig varieties that grow well in Texas, as well as basic cultivation advice, see Aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/extension/fruit/figs/figs.html.)
To beat the birds, it’s best to collect the fruit in the morning. Pick any figs that yield slightly to the touch and have a bit of pink showing at the base of the fruit. Rinse gently to remove the sticky “milk” left from the stems, and let dry on paper towels. If they aren’t quite ripe, let them sit on the counter for a few hours. They’ll continue to develop sugars, the color will intensify, and after two days they’ll start to shrivel a bit. Each stage has its own character and is enjoyable. If you prefer the fresh blush, they’ll keep longer in the refrigerator. In any case, keep an eye out for mold — the soft skin is easily blemished during picking. Any figs you can’t eat fresh can be dried and enjoyed later.
Fresh figs are delicious on their own for breakfast, dessert, or as a healthy snack. They’re also excellent on top of vanilla ice cream, or Greek-style with rich plain yogurt and drizzled with honey. They also pair well with toasted almonds. Inspiration should come quickly. Try a salad of mixed red lettuce and arugula, topped with sliced sweet onions, quartered figs, and chopped walnuts. Dress with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a sprinkling of kosher salt, and fresh cracked pepper.
For the ultimate fig tart, halve the fresh figs and sauté briefly in high-quality, salted, European-style butter, and flame them with a bit of brandy or cognac. This will produce one of the most indescribably yummy concoctions known to man (except maybe the same procedure carried out with fresh tree-ripened peaches). There’s no need to add sugar, honey, or any other flavoring. Just cook enough figs to cover the tart shell, with enough butter to make a glossy coating for figs and crust. Regular pie crust is fine, homemade pâté sucré or shortbread crust is better, and even commercial puff pastry is good. The goal is a toasty base for the figs. Cook the shell halfway, cover with figs, and return to the oven until the crust is done. For extra decadence, serve warm with a little crème freche or lightly sweetened whipped cream.
For Greek flavor, cut figs in half and roll them around in a baking dish with just enough olive oil to coat. Crumble feta over them, sprinkle with ouzo, and bake until the figs are hot and the feta gets a little toasty. Another Greek favorite is this excellent main dish: Place chicken pieces sprinkled with salt, pepper, ground coriander, cumin, and a hint of cayenne in a casserole with sliced onions, lots of garlic, bay leaves, whole figs, and about a cup of port or Mavrodaphne. Cover with foil and bake until the chicken is tender.
The first and most abundant fig harvest has just passed, but sometimes there’s a second wave in the early fall. The funny thing is that the birds don’t seem as voracious with the fall crop, either because it doesn’t coincide with their cycle or because the figs aren’t quite as sweet. I’m not that finicky. Aside from the fruit itself, I relish the velvety, floppy, fragrant leaves, the smooth skin of the tree, and the sticky “milk” that forms on freshly picked stems — the whole experience is sensual. Some claim it was a pomegranate or apple in the Garden of Eden. I’m convinced it was a fig, and the fall was worth it.