For a fruit that is only available for such a short time every year (from June until September), the fig’s illustrious reputation remains unaltered through the years.
The rise of figs in history
Accounts of its presence date back to ancient Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. Here, the mythology refers to the sycamore (ficus sycomorus) in connection with the sun god.
In ancient Rome, the fig was instead sacred to Mars, the god of war. According to legend, the two founders of Rome were born from Mars’ and Rea Silva’s union. They were abandoned in a basket along the shores of the river Tiber, as Rea Silva was a vestal. Instead of dying, a flood carried them along the river course, until it deposited them under a fig tree. It is here that the iconic wolf found them and nursed them – an image that is now the symbol of Rome. This was the reason why the fruit was kept in the highest regard in ancient Rome, right from the start. Venerated by shepherds, who wished to obtain more milk from their animals, it later became associated with the goddess of breastfeeding. A temple was built on the site where legend told that Romulus and Remus were found by the wolf, in order to protect the tree. Great care was taken to ensure there always would be a tree in good health as it was seen as a bad omen if the tree perished.
The role figs play in the Italian culture
As the Roman empire crumbled, the fig’s popularity didn’t. Only available from September to October, the delicious fruit is still sought after in modern-day Italy. In fact, so entrenched it is in the Italian language that it originated many sayings and proverbs.
‘Un fico secco’ (a dried fig) stands in many sayings, such as “non capire un fico secco” (not being able to understand anything), “non vale un fico secco” (it’s worth nothing), “non c’entra un fico secco” (it’s not pertinent to the question at hand). Its other variation, “figo” is slang for cool. “Mica pizza e fichi” is another way of saying that the thing you’re referring to has great value, in comparison to pizza and figs which were readily available in ancient times. “Fare le nozze con i fichi secchi” (having a wedding where only dried figs are served) it’s a proverb that means wanting to do something without the proper means.
A Tuscan delicacy
Figs have been in Tuscany for centuries and the town of Carmignano, just outside Florence, is famous for its desiccated figs. They’re produced following Columella’s “De Rustica”, a text from ancient Rome which depicts the preparation of this delicacy. The SlowFood association and Tuscany’s regional government have enlisted Carmignano’s figs, along with 365 other products, to be protected. Once so popular that every house had its own, fig trees are now rare but their fruits remain a staple of Italy’s cuisine.
One fruit, many ways to enjoy it
Desiccation is only one way figs can be prepared, in fact, they can be eaten straight from the tree, the best pairing being with prosciutto. As it is often the case with Italian recipes, simple is best and when it comes to figs, they pair extremely well with cheese. Whether it’s just a platter of figs, goat’s cheese and honey or a bruschetta, the sweetness of the fruit balances the stronger flavor of dairy. For extra flavor, add them to salads. When caramelized they’re delicious, especially with ricotta in paninis or as an addition to risotto. For the more adventurous, figs can be a great companion to roast meat (duck breast in particular). Such a versatile fruit can be prepared in several ways as a dessert, from parfaits to pies but in Tuscany, it is usually made into jam and then served in a variety of dishes.