For most of us, September means back to school, changing leaves on trees and the gradual cooling (thankfully!) that marks the beginning of fall. For produce, September also marks a rare overlap of two distinctive seasons where the remaining bounty of summer is joined by the first of fall's apples and pears. In a few short weeks, the lure of the fall harvest season will be irresistible, but for now, we still have time to celebrate the peak harvest of two of Mother Nature's finest fruits: figs and grapes.
Black Mission FigsFigs have a special place in my heart because of my great Aunt Bell. Her yard, behind her house about two miles from downtown Jackson, Mississippi, was my late summer childhood playground and in it were three gigantic fig trees. Years of aluminum pie pans hung from the branches of these trees - the first and only line of defense against a steady stream of crows. Eating warm figs right from the trees and watching my great aunt make fig preserves were two great childhood memories - listening to the "tis, tis, tis" of the pressure cooker as the fragrance of cooking figs filled the kitchen.
Brown Turkey FigsThis year the commercial fig season got off to a slow start - the cool El Niño summer robbing us of most of the first (or "breba") season. The long summer has finally helped us catch up and Black Mission, Brown Turkey, Kadota and the famed Adriatic varieties now fill the store displays recently vacated by the waning blueberries of summer. Figs are the ultimate "soft" fruit. While most are packed in clamshells these days, it pays to open the container and gently feel a few. Figs should be soft to the touch - a container with mostly firm fruit is likely under ripe and should be avoided. Also look for sap leaking from the blossom end of the fruit - an indication the fig has reached full maturity.
Natural Thompson, Concord and Bronx Seedless GrapesGrapes are a year-round fruit staple that really hits its stride domestically in the early weeks of fall. The red, green and black common table varieties have had the whole of summertime sun to concentrate sugars and it is rare to find a sour grape anywhere. Additionally, for a few short weeks in the early fall, regional varietal grapes make brief and wonderful appearances. In New England and the Midwest, the Concord grape comes off; out west the latest trend has growers harvesting wine grape varieties for fresh consumption; and in the Southeastern states the colonial varieties of Scuppemong and Muscadine are ready to enjoy.
Red seedless hanging on the vineFigs and grapes are both great additions to early fall salads and light meals. My current favorites include sliced figs with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, tossed with arugula and a cow's milk feta. My favorite grape is a Bronx seedless (a concord and natural Thompson seedless cross) that I serve with a cold roasted chicken breast, sharp white cheddar (like a Dubliner), whatever crusty bread strikes my fancy (a Berkeley baked herb slab is my current favorite), all washed down with that other great crushed and fermented byproduct of grapes.
At home in Aptos, I've planted three coastal fig varieties in honor of my great Aunt Bell. While I have yet to pick a single ripe specimen, I still smile at the memory of giant mason jars filled with golden treasure every time I search the branches covered by those distinctively shaped leaves. I do have a Concord grape vine that is producing nicely this year - the green irregular clusters just starting to turn a deep rich purple. In a few weeks my house will be filled with the iconic fragrance of grape jam - followed by another year of wishing I had paid better attention to Aunt Bell when she patiently explained how to make fig preserves. Maybe by the time my trees are big enough to produce, I will have figured it out.