Monday, September 24, 2007

Figs, Proscutto and Fall

It's officially my favorite season of the year. Fall arrived here in San Diego with a definite change of weather. We actually had rain! Practically unheard of at this time of the year, actually, and no doubt there will be more summer ahead....but for a few days, we got a taste of crisp air, dark, muscular clouds..... and rain. And it is the season for one of the oddest fruits we have in North America -- one that people usually love or hate. A fruit of biblical stature, (well, the leaves anyway), and one which many people find embarrassing to eat.

Well, perhaps I should start by clarifying something. Actually, the fig isn't a fruit. According to Wikipedia, the fig is commonly thought of as fruit, but it is properly the flower of the fig tree. It is in fact a false fruit or multiple fruit, in which the flowers and seeds grow together to form a single mass. What is commonly called the "fruit" of a fig is actually a specialized structure- or accessory fruit- called a syconium: an involuted (nearly closed) receptacle with many small flowers arranged on the inner surface. Thus the actual flowers of the fig are unseen unless the fig is cut open. The syconium often has a bulbous shape with a small opening at the distal end that allows access by pollinators. The flowers are pollinated by very small wasps that crawl through the opening in search of a suitable place to reproduce (lay eggs). Without this pollinator service fig trees cannot reproduce by seed. In turn, the flowers provide a safe haven and nourishment for the next generation of wasps.

Now, I know that could sound fairly disgusting. The "Ick" factor rises with such an explanation. But that could be said about much of the food we eat - vegetarian or otherwise - if we stop to think about it. My personal approach is to not think about such things in the face of something as sweet and sensual as a fig. Do you remember that incredible scene in "Women In Love", where one of the characters gives a speech on how to eat a fig? It was, of course, pure Henry Miller: an unabashed discourse on sensual pleasure.

My favorite way to eat a fig has been to buy as much prosciutto di Parma as my wallet will allow, and to indulge myself by wrapping, cushioning or just encasing chunks of those jammy purple morsels in sheer strips of prosciutto. The saltiness of the prosciutto is the perfect balance for the fig. A friend of mine recently told me of a fig dish he made with blue cheese baked inside. That sounds positively decadent to me - a must try! And Jenn over at The Leftover Queen made a fabulous sounding dish with figs and Parmesan cheese a few weeks ago.

There's a fig tree in my neighborhood. When the previous owners of the house still lived there, the tree was allowed to grow over the sidewalk. True, the purple blotches on the concrete made for a trickier walk, but I was in heaven. The tree was on the way to Little Italy, and so I would first go to my favorite Italian grocery store and stock up on prosciutto. Then, on the way home, I would load up my grocery bags with figs. My riches would last me for about 5 days or so, and then, like an addict in search of my next "fix", I'd head back down to Little Italy. In this manner, I gorged myself on figs and prosciutto for breakfast every day until I could no longer reach any more ripe figs.

Now the house has been sold, and the new owners have trimmed it back. It is no longer accessible from the street. So I must buy my figs from the store. Yes, they can taste as good, but the adventure of it has gone.

12 comments:

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

This is a lovely lovely post dedicated to the beautiful fig!

Susan said...

Ah, yes, the "fig fix." I know it well, Toni. There is such a short window here in NY to buy these fresh. Your photo is lovely - how the colors match and contrast.

Toni said...

Jenn - Thanks! Enjoy your much deserved vacation! I envy you being able to drink in all those fall colors in New England.

Susan - I think the window is relatively short everywhere. Perhaps that's why so many of us are writing about figs these days! Thanks for the compliment on the photo!

katiez said...

Cut little purple figs! Ours are big and green. I'm embarrassed to say I'm not a big fan, at least, not of ours. I find them too sweet,sorry... Am I leaving them on the tree too long?
I'll go anywhere for Prosciutto, though....

Nora B. said...

Enjoyable post, Toni. Sounds like a wonderful adventure.Ttoo bad it had to stop.

toni said...

Katiez - I had green ones in Turkey and loved them too. One is either a fan, or not - no apologies necessary! But I must say that their sweetness offset by prosciutto is quite disarming....

Nora - Yes, it's too bad it had to stop. But there will be other adventures to look forward to, I'm sure!

ann said...

What curmudgeons! Or possibly gluttons! Keeping all the figs for themselves!
I've never gotten into fresh figs, I'm a fan of fig preserves and newtons and puddings, but the texture of the fresh ones get to me a bit. I'm no rethinking this however, based on your descriptions, and the taste-memory of figs and prosciutto that I've never even tasted. I'm beginning to feel a bit obsessed!
Thanks Toni :-)

toni said...

Ann - bundle a chunk of one in a couple of slices of prosciutto and let me know what you think....

Cynthia said...

Oh you poor thing :) don't worry another adventure will come along :)

Susan said...

I try to eat as many as I can before the season ends! I haven't finished yet....

Rachael said...

They are the only fruit vegans cant eat!

As always, fantastic post!

And bummer about that fig tree...

Chris said...

Wow - I learned tons here, Toni! I have only had fresh fig once - this summer, and it was only a little piece. hmmm I need to fix that!