My two fig trees (one a Desert King and the other a Brown Turkey) are snuggled up close (too close) to the south wall of the house and right next to a major pathway – I suffer from the landscaper’s disease of not being able to foresee just how much room a plant or tree will finally take up in the yard, therefore everything has about ½ the actual space it needs. The figs always spend the summer protruding over the path so that I have to use long poles to push the branches away, or ultimately, just carve out a new path around the temporary obstacles.
As I walked by yesterday, I stopped to take a good look at the progress of the ripening figs – figs are one of those fruits that tend to go from hard to fully ripe overnight, and I could see that the Desert King was loaded with fully ripe fruit – my day’s work was suddenly readjusted and set.
One of the reasons why we don’t often see fresh figs in the market is because they are a fragile fruit – their peak of ripeness is short and sweet – and if you leave them on the tree too long, you’ve lost them. Surprisingly, I only noticed a few ants as I picked – ants love figs, and once you have hanging ripe figs, you’ll soon have thousands of ants climbing all over them. I did see a few in my picking basket, and got a pic of them in action (below) – they are at the base of the overripe fig in the middle.
Interestingly, the figs develops right on the major branches, and there are two distinct fruitings each year – so a fig tree can have some figs almost ripe, and some quite small, both at the same time. Actually, my area of the northwest will not support most fig tree growth and fruiting, but the hearty Desert King does well here. My Brown Turkey, although a beautiful, compact 7 year old tree, has yet to fruit – I knew when I planted it that this is fringe area for the Brown Turkey, but as it matures, and global warming progresses, it may just outgrow its reluctance – we live in hope.
Another interesting fact about figs is that the fruit is not, as with most other fruits, a by-product of the flowering process, it is the flower! In the picture above, the blossom end of the fruit is actually the entrance to the fig’s flower – it is always open, if any pollinating insects are interested. Often, on a ripening fig, you will see a drop of sugary liquid appear at that opening, which is yet another sign that the fig is at its zenith of ripeness. BTW, if you slice into an unripe fig, or cut into a branch of a fig tree, some white, latex like sap will appear – it is actually toxic to the skin, and will cause nasty irritations, especially if you are among those with a significant sensitivity. But during the ripening process, that same toxic sap turns to sugar and becomes a delight to man – time can be so kind.
I have several things in mind regarding preserving this bounty – up to this time, I had a romantic notion to make “real” fig vinegar. What do I mean by “real” vinegar? Well, vinegar is made either by distilling it (white or pickling vinegars), by infusing the flavors of fruit into an existing vinegar, or by a double fermentation method (which I call the real vinegar) – in the latter method, the first fermentation makes wine, and the second acidifies it into vinegar. Actually, the hard part is turning the fruit juice into wine – acidifying it is easy, maybe too easy. Many, many wines have become vinegar, totally by accident.
As I say, I was going to do this – but after doing my research, I’ve decided to shelve that idea for the time being, and do a simpler infusion of figs into some balsamic and red wine vinegars, and see how that turns out.
I will also be making some fig chutney this year – I’ve never made this before, but I’m a chutney freak and every year I make a chutney. I especially like these fruit chutneys because they can so easily be turned into accent sauces, or simply used as a condiment to brighten up an otherwise mundane entree.
The bulk of the figs will be dried, since figs are almost the quintessential dried fruit, and can be used in more ways dried than when they’re fresh – and drying them is so damn easy – if you have a dehydrator, cut ’em in quarters, spread ’em out, stack ’em, and turn on the machine … and wait …. Yeah, it takes a long time – just don’t forget them.
If you want to make a fig infused vinegar, it’s a no-brainer – you can use a distilled vinegar, or a red or white wine vinegar, but for best results, an inexpensive balsamic works best. In fact, for some time now, a commercial fig balsamic vinegar has been available, and has become very popular, and very expensive – however, even the expensive fig balsamic vinegar is made by infusing fresh figs with cheap balsamic, so why not do the same and save a bundle. Just chop your figs (maybe a pound, or more, for every quart of vinegar), add the vinegar and figs to a large saucepan, and simmer it for about 20 minutes or more, until the figs have lost their form and become mush – strain and bottle. This will be thicker than the original vinegar, and is supposed to be – but if it’s too thick for you, add either more vinegar or, if it has a strong vinegar taste already, add water to thin it. Store in fridge, or on the shelf – it will not spoil.
I leave you today with the recipe I’m using to make the fig chutney – it came from Ellen in a 2005 post on Chowhound, which also contains a slew of nice ideas for using figs.
2 1/2 cups red wine vinegar
1/2 pound (about 1 cup) brown sugar
1 onion, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds,
1/4 lemon, zested (my guess is this means that only the zest of ¼ of a lemon is used)
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/4 pounds firm, slightly under ripe fresh figs, rinsed, stems removed and chopped
In a large saucepan combine the vinegar, sugar, onion, ginger, mustard seeds, lemon zest, cinnamon stick, salt, allspice, and cloves and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until mixture is thickened and reduced by 2/3, forming a thick syrup. Add the figs and cook gently until the figs are very soft and beginning to fall apart and most of the liquid they’ve given off has evaporated, about 30 minutes.
Transfer the chutney to a non-reactive container and allow to come to room temperature before serving. The chutney may be made up to 3 weeks in advance and stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container. (Alternately, hot chutney may be ladled into hot sterilized canning jars and processed in a hot-water bath according to manufacturer’s directions.)