There are lots of things to love about figs.
Historically, the fig is one of the oldest domesticated fruits on record with references dating back literally thousands of years. The tree itself is a robust, self-sufficient organism — often living for more than 100 years (more than three times the average life of other fruit bearing trees). Figs grow all over the world and come in an astonishing range of varieties and characteristics. But the one thing all figs share is their sweetness — at full ripeness they can concentrate more sugars than any tree fruit.
Figs are also one of only a few tree fruits that have two distinct parts to their harvest season. The first harvest (or “Breba” fruit) comes from the branches the tree produced the previous year. In the U.S. this Breba fruit is generally available in late May through mid-June. The second harvest and main crop on the tree’s new branches grows all summer and generally is ready to harvest at the end of August through October. For those of us in the produce trade, the Breba fruit is a tantalizing (sometimes maddening) preview of the main season yet to come.
The most common commercially produced fig is the Black Mission — a fig with a purple/black exterior color and a pink/brown interior. The Black Mission is extremely prolific and tends to travel well so it is likely the fig you will see at your local store. Another common but less available variety is the Brown Turkey which tends to be larger and more fragile than the Black Mission. There are several green skinned varieties, including Kadota and Adriatic. The Adriatic has a very short season and is very fragile, but the bright red interior and strawberry jam-like flavor make them well worth the trouble.
Selecting figs is a lot like choosing the right package of berries. Since they are so fragile, figs are generally packed in containers. If this is the case, you should examine them from all angles (particularly the bottom) to make sure there are no split or crushed figs inside. Once you get them home you should remove figs from their container and inspect them for damage and then store them in your refrigerator until you are ready to eat them. You should never keep fresh figs for more than a week — I always eat my softest figs first.
Luckily, figs start becoming widely available just when berries and soft fruits like peaches start to wane. Figs make a great breakfast fruit and are excellent paired with cheeses as an appetizer. They also make a refreshing addition to late summer/ fall salads with nuts, apples, and blue cheese. If I have some figs when I’m grilling I remove the stem and stuff them with some gorgonzola and grill them over indirect heat — this removes a lot of the moisture in the fig, caramelizes the sugars and really brings out the flavor. Grilled figs are also wonderful for dessert topped with vanilla ice cream.
There are many delicious dishes you can make with dried figs as well, but I encourage you to indulge in some fresh figs during this short harvest season. Enjoy!