Even though all fruits and nuts were enjoyed, some were considered more appropriate for dessert than others based on taste, appearance, and sweetness. In the nineteenth century, British cookbook author Mrs. Isabella Beeton recommended pineapples, melons, grapes, peaches, nectarines, plums, strawberries, apples, pears, oranges, almonds, raisins, figs, walnuts, filberts, medlars, cherries, and all kinds of dried fruits, together with the “most costly and recherché wines.” And the fruits and nuts featured at Philadelphia chef James Parkinson’s magnificent seventeen-course “Thousand Dollar Dinner” in 1851 included apples, figs, walnuts, pecan nuts, oranges, raisins, almonds, and filberts.
But fruits have their seasons; so serving them fresh was not always possible depending on the time of year. This was very much the case with figs, which were usually imported from the Mediterranean where they thrived in the warm, dry climate there. In order to make the journey, they were often first preserved or dried. The fig was brought to North America by Spaniards in the sixteenth century and introduced in several areas of North America, including Haiti, Mexico and later Virginia and California, home to the famous “Black Mission” figs planted by Spanish priests at the Mission San Diego in 1769. Today figs are produced in small batches in a few spots throughout the U.S., including the Delmarva Peninsula, but California is the only state able to grow figs commercially. Even today, fresh figs are not always available in supermarkets.
But when I do find fresh figs, I love to serve them - not only as a dessert – but also as a sweet-savory appetizer. After cutting off the stem, I stuff them with creamy goat cheese, and then place under the broiler for a few minutes. When they come out, all nice and lightly browned, I drizzle some flavorful balsamic vinegar over the surface. Delicious!
I wanted to make this appetizer last week for a fun evening get together with some girlfriends, but I could not find any fresh figs. However, I did have a jar of “Boat Street Pickled Figs” on hand, described as “Black Mission figs bathed in a sweet syrup of red wine, cane sugar, balsamic vinegar, rosemary and sea salt.” I thought, why not spread these in a small baking dish, sprinkle goat cheese over the top and then broil to brown the cheese? Well, it was amazing! It worked perfectly as a spread on flatbread and crackers.
But a fascinating little book produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1901 called The Fig: Its History, Culture, and Curing had two different recipes for pickled figs, as well as one for spiced figs. All use sugar, vinegar and spices such as allspice, cinnamon and cloves. The spiced figs sound very tasty and not difficult to make: Spiced figs.—Peel ripe white figs, and to 10 pounds of the figs add 5 pounds of brown sugar, 1 quart of vinegar, 1 ounce of cinnamon, one-half ounce allspice, one-half ounce cloves, the spices to be tied in bags and boiled with the sugar and vinegar. When the vinegar and spices have come to a boil add the figs, a few at a time, to prevent mashing, and boil until they look clear. When all are done put into jars and pour the vinegar over them hot.
According to this book, figs were prepared canned, stewed, as fig sauce, and steamed (in glass jars) by the turn of the twentieth century. The book also had an interesting recipe for Stuffed figs: Use "bag figs" which have not been pressed. Cut a small slit in the stem end of each fig and work in 2 or more blanched almonds. Or make a paste made from almonds, walnuts, and hickory nuts, to which are added a few drops of sherry. A portion of the soft meat of the figs is first taken out, using a knife or a small pointed spoon. The fig is now filled with the paste. When filled, press the opening and roll in granulated sugar. Another great appetizer idea!
And I enjoyed reading the description of figs from 1901: “Few fruits have been so neglected in this country as the fig, and, except in some of the Southern States and in southern California, the practical value of figs is almost unknown. What dried figs are sold at the fruit stands and in the grocery stores go principally to the tables of the wealthy merely as a luxury. In the Mediterranean countries the use of the fig is a very different one. There the fig is a staple article of food for the common people, and hundreds of thousands of tons are yearly consumed.”
It’s fascinating that some foods that can be a staple in one region, yet a luxury in another. It’s possible that many people in America have only been exposed to the “Fig Newtons” they had as a kid. Well, if and when you can get your hands on fresh figs, do give them a try –they are luscious and decadent eaten any which way – whether fresh out of hand, as a tasty appetizer with almonds or goat cheese, in a salad, or as a delectable dessert. Please do let me know if you have a favorite fig recipe – I’d love to hear it!
Sources: The Fig: Its History, Culture, and Curing: With a Descriptive Catalogue of the Known Varieties of Figs by Gustavus A. Eisen; Fruits, and how to Use Them: A Practical Manual for Housekeepers By Hester Martha Poole; The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson; The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink by Andrew F. Smith; http://boatstreetpickles.com/