The fig is said to be among the very first plants domesticated by the very first farmers in the hot and arid Middle East. These agricultural innovators likely discovered early just how easy it is to propagate a new fig tree; by planting a fig branch in the ground, a new tree identical to the parent will grow and produce fruit within two or three years. It is hardy surprising, then, that such a willing provider of nutritious and delicious calories was quickly introduced to regions around the Mediterranean — wherever ships and camels could go. Over time, new varieties were born and cultivated in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, France and many more areas.
In the 1500s, figs came to America, and by the 1700s Spanish missionaries were planting them in their settlements along the West Coast of Mexico and California, where a commercial industry took root in the Central Valley in the late 1800s. Today, the fig orchards of Fresno, Madera and Kern counties, just west of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, encompass about 10,000 acres — nothing compared to half million acres of California wine grapes, but one of the largest centralized fig industries in the world, along with those of Turkey, Italy, Spain and Greece.
Not all figs are created equal. Of the hundreds and hundreds of cultivated varieties, several have been selected as the mainstays of the world’s regional industries — with the Kadota, the Black Mission, the Adriatic and the Calimyrna figs among the favorites of American chefs, and the figs commonly seen in markets during the fig season, which runs June through December in the Northern Hemisphere. What differentiates each fig from the next may be stark and obvious factors, like skin color (ranging from almost white to black), flesh color (honey-hued to plum-purple) and size (whether like marbles or like pears). Figs may offer flavors of raspberry, maple syrup, caramel, honey and almond, with certain varieties tending more toward bright and zesty fruitiness and others more toward the nutty, coffee-and-caramel end of the spectrum. Yet the differences between types can be subtle enough that it takes a wine-taster’s attention and vocabulary to articulate them.
Not that we need to — for the point of a fig, since day-one in the Fertile Crescent, has always been simply to enjoy it. Following are six varieties of figs that make it easy.
- Black Mission
Among the most esteemed and available fig varieties in the world, the Black Mission is believed to have originated from a seedling tree somewhere in the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain. The variety, once known as the Franciscana, became the chief fig of the Catholic missions — and as the variety was adopted by the growing fig industry of California, the name Black Mission was born. This fig is smallish, with dense pink flesh heavily studded with seeds that give a pleasant crunch to the silky flesh. The texture of a perfectly ripe one is sticky and jammy — and those left extra long on the tree, where the sun dries them out like prunes, are extra sweet and gummy.
- Brown Turkey
This extremely popular and large fig is grown across the world perhaps more than any other. Its origins go back to the early 1700s, when it was first introduced to England — possibly from Italy. The fruits are elongated and pear-shaped, with maple-brown skin. When shopping, beware of Brown Turkey figs harvested too early, which will be stiff and tough, and taste dull and flat. But those with tender skin that bruises easily will be soft and velvety, and heavy, sweet and juicy within.
A green-skinned fig, the Sierra is also a new variety, introduced by breeders in 2006. The Sierra resembles the Calimyrna, a favorite fig with roots in western Turkey. The fruits are large and round, ideal for slicing open and serving by the half, perhaps topped with cheese and olive oil.
Often dried, this originally Turkish fig is outstanding as a fresh fruit. Its large fruits split with ripeness as sap and sugars erupt from the breaches in the skin. Such figs taste of honey, jam and butterscotch, with a nuttiness from the numerous seeds. All you can find are semi-ripe supermarket figs? Then grill them, which brings out caramel notes and a spicy holiday zest while softening them into the sticky, sweet globs that the best figs are.
This cold-tolerant fig is grown on small farms around the country, mostly in cooler areas like the Pacific Northwest, and places where cold winters preclude other varieties, like the heat-loving Calimyrna and Black Mission. The King is a teardrop-shaped, green-skinned fig with dark purple flesh absolutely decadent when the fruits are allowed to fully ripen. Shop at farmers markets or natural foods groceries for the best bet at finding truly ripe figs.
The most common green type, the Kadota is believed to be thousands of years old. Pliny the Elder is said to have commended this variety, known in Italy as the Dotatto. The skin is yellowish green, and the flesh particularly smooth and silky. It is among the more commonly seen fresh figs in California.
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