August brings another period of change in the business of produce. It’s really too warm (okay, hot!) just about everywhere right now. And just like that heat puts stress on people, it also puts pressure on crops. Certain plants will shut down when it gets too hot — sometimes they will even spontaneously abort their crop if the heat is putting the plant in danger. Farm worker days get shorter as it gets too hot to harvest progressively earlier in the morning and truck refrigeration units have to work harder to keep produce cool as they roll over highway pavement temperatures well in excess of 120°F in some places. Despite the challenges of the dog days, there is one more crop Mother Nature has in store for us: Figs are the final treat of summer.
Figs are unique in the tree fruit world in that a single tree will have two distinct harvest periods every season. Early summer, usually around the middle of June we see the “Breeba” crop — this is fruit that emerges from the old wood on the tree. The Breeba season is short and serves more as a tantalizing preview of the larger, longer harvest of fruit from the new branches of the tree. Figs are also unusual in another respect. Most commercial fruit trees have a relatively short lifecycle — losing productivity in 20 to 25 years. A well-cared-for fig tree, on the other hand, will continue to be a prolific producer for twice that long.
There are many commercial varieties of figs available but most are very difficult to transport, so the variety of figs you see at your local store or farmers market will depend on your distance from the source. The three most common varieties are the Black Mission (dark purple outside, red/brown inside), the Brown Turkey (large brown outside, red/brown inside), and the Kadota (green outside, light brown inside). Arguably the best variety (and hardest to find) is the Adriatic (green outside with a bright red interior). Selecting figs is tactile exercise — if they are in a clamshell package you should always open it and physically inspect the fruit. Figs should be soft to the touch — fruit that is too firm was picked immature and should be avoided. Wrinkled or damaged skin is an indication the fruit is aging but if you come across fruit that has sap leaking from the blossom end, buy it without hesitation. This will be the fruit with the best flavor.
Figs can be cooked or eaten raw and complement a wide range of dishes. My favorite way to serve figs is roasted on the grill. I remove about ¼ of the stem to allow steam to escape and brush some olive oil on the outside surface of the fig so it won’t stick. I then place them in indirect heat, in an out-of-the-way place on my grill and just let the moisture slowly bubble out of the fig. They look like little kettles and as they cook, the sugars will caramelize and the flavor of the fruit will really come out. I serve either over ice cream for dessert or as a complementary side to any red meat dish. Another way to serve is with one of my early season favorite fruit that is about to finish: sliced figs and apricots tossed with some crumbled gorgonzola and balsamic vinegar is about the tastiest (and prettiest) summer salads you can eat.
Mostly I love figs for their history. Fresh and dried figs have been commercially cultivated for thousands of years all over the world. Fig trees in the wild grow to be giants, serving as both food and shelter for countless creatures. Figs even played a part in my own short history, being one of the first fruits I remember eating from the tree behind my great aunt Cebelle’s house in Jackson, Mississippi some 40+ years ago. As berries pass their peak and other summer fruit start to fade, figs will carry us from summer into autumn — from blistering hot to blessedly cool. A nice companion for the last few weeks of summer.