No greater thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me you desire a fig, I answer that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.Epictetus
Behind the Roman Theatre in Arles – ‘behind’ being a relative term, in this case not behind the stage, but behind the ‘cavea’, or concentric seating auditorium – is a fig tree. It’s crammed in between the 2000 year-old theatre and the more modern (circa 1400) maison de ville behind the behind. It is massive, the largest I’ve ever seen, easily 3 stories tall, and the trunk, or trunks – there are 5 of them in a tight cluster thrusting up like gnarly fingers – each thicker than a man’s torso. It bursts out of a pile of stony rubble and ancient masonry, roots slowly accomplishing what millennia of frosts, a Caesar or two, world wars, and acid rain couldn’t.
The trunks spur upward for only a metre or so before spreading out in thick loopy tendrils, then branching off and up to create a tangled canopy high above, a jungle-book fantasy of a tree, perfect for resting panthers and devious pythons. And in spite of its impressive size, it remains somewhat tucked away from the tourists, who tend to stick to the sunny, crumbly ruins the other side of the cavea. Here it’s shady, quiet, butting up against the modern light booth that peers over the back wall (the theatre is still used for concerts and other performances).
It’s a common fig, nothing exotic, Ficus carica, and at probably around a couple hundred years old, the youngest player in this tableau.
The ground beneath is littered with fruit in various stages of decay, a feast for snails and rats; the tree above, were one tempted to climb – and the not-so-dormant 12-year old boy in me most definitely was – is laden with fruit of varying degrees of ripeness. Pale green to speckled deep purple, some splitting with over-ripeness, some exuding a little milky sap. There’s a window for the harvest, you’ve got a few weeks before returns began to diminish and your shoes get sticky. But in season…a revelation awaits those who have only experienced ‘Newtons’, or the cellophane-wrapped wheels of dried fruit in Greek markets – both excellent in their own way, don’t get me wrong, I can down a whole sleeve of Newtons in a sitting, and as for the fig wheels, there’s an Albanian proverb that goes something like, “If you have figs in your knapsack, everyone will want to be your friend” – but at its peak, a fresh Ficus carica is a whole new world.
A ripe fig is about more than taste. It’s about texture, and firmness, a desperately deep purple, an earthy-sweet-saturating aroma, a honey-caviar mouthfeel that’s impossible to describe without resorting to prurient imagery. Resistance at first, then a give, then a gush…and then glorious, almost giddy surrender to overwhelming sticky-slick, blossoming-flower sensation. A ripe fig is oral sex at its finest.
And like sex, it’s best to walk that gangway while the ship’s still at the dock.
We’ve become accustomed these days to anything we want anytime we want it – vacuum-sealed, flash frozen, or flown ‘fresh’ from Peru, South Africa, a greenhouse in Des Moines – you want a peach in December? Wegman’s has some. Butternut squash in July? Try Wholefoods, there’s a shipment in from Brazil. We’re a Häagen Dazs at 2am kind of culture. And there’s nothing wrong with convenience. We don’t tend to appreciate it until we’re confronted with its absence, but it’s not the devil’s work. There are, however, things more…elemental.
The markets in France are seasonal. They run year ‘round, but the offerings follow the tilt of the sun. In spring, there are strawberries, with a tangy ripeness you can smell from half a block away – yes, you can find strawberries in almost any month, but for two or three glorious weeks in March or April you find ‘gariguettes’, a preternaturally sweet and biting variety that cause the white-aproned salesmen to rhapsodize like carnival barkers, “Gariguettes, gariguettes, la plus belle fraise du monde!”.
Or that champion harbinger of spring, asparagus, green and white – not the pencil-thin bundles in cellophane waistcoats that again you can find year ‘round, but stalks thicker than a butcher’s thumb, and tender, crying out for nothing more than steam and butter (an egg poached in red wine could go well perched on top, but that is sort of gilding the lily). You’ll pay for these fleeting favors – gariguettes in season run about 10 times the cost of regular fraises, and asparagus at its acme can set you back 17 euros per kilo. But forget about that as they crunch, collapse, and melt down your throat. We’ve forgotten how to really taste things fully, with abandon, and these moments of bliss come all too seldom.
And there’s the damning rub with expensive, ephemeral indulgences – you tend to reserve them for ‘special occasions’, or hold off buying them altogether until it’s too late, the sun has tilted. Or you try to make them last, ration out the wonder past its natural span. I’ve been guilty, more times than I care to remember – raspberries flecked with graying fuzz, cheese turned hard and dry, ruby red tomatoes that two days ago would’ve been chin-dripping perfect but now are less than firm and kind of…average. Crap, I spent a fortune on those things. When I was a kid, I was a chocolate freak, and I often ‘saved’ Hershey bars (or Special Dark, because that’s what my father liked) for later, only to unwrap them in 6 months time to discover the cocoa butter had bloomed to the surface and turned them whiteish, dry and crumbly…
My wife has been very good at re-educating me in the goodness of ‘now’. She’s taught me that the best time to drink that bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape we’ve been saving is today. The special occasion is dinner. Let’s celebrate this Friday, because…it’s Friday, and we’re together. She’s not frivolous, quite the opposite – she’s a hard-core realist and knows that sometimes expensive wine turns to vinegar, and more importantly that the moment is what you make of it. There are only so many moments. She’s taught me to buy fresh flowers, to eat peaches in July, and enjoy candy corn in October.
Embrace, enjoy, and savor the moment. Embrace and enjoy the people and days around you. The sun keeps tilting.
And now, figs are in season, if only for a while. They are purpling up the markets. Earlier today I danced around snails and monkeyed up the python tree to collect a hatful of ripe to bursting prospects. We will not wait to eat them – they will be served (tonight) with a nice chevre, accompanied by a great bottle of wine, made into tapenade and spread on a baguette, eaten by the spoonful…
Figs are fleeting, eat them while they’re fresh.
There are countless ways to use a season’s figs – roasted, grilled, in pastries, salads, stews, quite good on pizza…there’s a lovely recipe for Fig Leaf and Honey Ice Cream on David Lebovitz’s website…but it’s kind of hard to beat the simplicity and perfection of a ripe fig on its own and unadorned.
In any case, here are a few favorites chez nous, and even the kids like them…
FRESH FIG & BLACK OLIVE TAPENADE
1 lb/500g Fresh*, ripe to bursting figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped
1 cup/180 g Black olives (kalamata are good), pitted and chopped small
1 ½ Tblsp Lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 Tblsp Whole-grain Mustard
1 clove Garlic, minced fine
1 Tblsp Capers, rinsed, drained, and chopped fine
2 tsp fresh Rosemary, chopped fine.
Dollop Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Black Pepper to taste, although you probably won’t need the salt due to the olives and capers…
Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl, cover and allow the flavors to mingle for a couple hours to overnight in the fridge. You could wrestle them in a pestle or give them a whirl in a food processor if you prefer a smoother texture, but I kinda like the chunky version. Keeps for about a week in a covered container in the fridge, but really? There shouldn’t be any left after the first day…
*I’ve used dried figs as well, simply quarter a cup of dried figs from one of those wheels, and simmer them in an equal amount of water, maybe a splash of port, for 30 minutes or so, drain, reserving the liquid for later thinning if necessary, and proceed per the recipe
There’s a wonderful cookbook by David Tanis that has an equally wonderful title I wish I had come up with, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. Sometimes, often, it’s best to do as little as possible and just enjoy a fig. Or you can tart it up a bit, this is our standby…
Take a fig, appreciate it’s beauty, anticipate the wonders within. Slice it in half, crumble a little bleu cheese, drizzle a little balsamic vinegar, or if you’re feeling fancy and have it to hand, balsamic reduction. Pop it in your mouth, close your eyes, and try to track all the tumbling flavors that follow. Repeat.