Plump and ready, sun-kissed under the blue Mediterranean Sea, the ripe fig with its dried-up skin sags desiccated on the limb with its sweetest nectar concealed deep inside.
Figs are teardrop-shaped fruits, sticky and jam-like within their thin, leathery skins. They can be green, brown, purple or black, and tend to split as the fruits swell and ripen. A fig’s flesh is silky and studded with tiny crunchy seeds. Redder-fleshed varieties often resemble raspberry jam in taste, while those with more amber-toned interiors tend to taste nuttier, often with notes of chocolate and honey. In late-summer season, the ripe fruits abound in households and markets in Lebanon, where those delicatessen are much praised and appreciated.
Part of the wonder of the fig comes from its unique taste and texture. Figs are lusciously sweet and feature a complex texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin, and the crunchiness of their seeds. In addition, since fresh figs are so delicate and perishable, some of their mystique comes from their relative rarity. Because of this, the majority of figs are dried, either by exposure to sunlight or through an artificial process, creating a sweet and nutritious dried fruit that can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Figs can trace their history back to the earliest of times with mentions in the Bible and other ancient writings. Many researchers claim that the Middle East is the origin of Ficus Carica the common fig. Archeologists have discovered remains of fig trees in cultivation in Jordan valley tracing back to 4000 BC. There are hundreds of varieties in that region.
Fig is considered to be one the oldest fruit trees in the Mediterranean zone. A famous fig breeder and researcher named Ira Condit mentioned that Syria and Anatolia are the natural habitats of the fig tree and from there it was transferred to North Africa, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Peru and California. It was also transported to South America via France and to Mesopotamia, Iran and India from Anatolia.
The fig fruit was well known by ancient Egyptians. It was called “Tun” which could be the origin of Arabic “Teen”. Ancient findings related to the fig tree dates back to 5000 BC in Egyptian archeological sites. Having traded with the Egyptian, it might be a theory that the Phoenician and the Egyptians had exchanged knowledge of the fig tree.
Figs were held in such esteem by the Greeks that they created laws forbidding the export of the best quality figs. Figs were also revered in ancient Rome where they were thought of as a sacred fruit. According to Roman myth, the wolf that nurtured the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, rested under a fig tree.
Many of the varieties of the Middle East were given descriptive names based on the shape, color or flavor. For example the variety named Byadi which comes from the word Abyad for white, can be found in different areas of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan and many varieties were given that name although they’re not genetically the same.
The fig tree is a wondrous tree with its strong grey trunk, the wide velvety leaves, the sticky itchy white milk resin that leaks from the cracked leaves, its round crimson fruits with their bellies filled with honeyed goodness. There are over 750 varieties, each with its own particular genetic print. Like a person, each fig has a different character: a taste, shape and color.
The fig is not a fruit but a flower grown inwards. To be precise, the fig is the infructescence or scion of the tree, in which the flowers and seeds are borne inside. Fig trees, unlike other crops, mature quickly in just 3 to 6 years, require relatively little extra watering, and any surplus fruit can be dried and sold later, making them an ideal investment for farmers
There are many different varieties of figs, including Anaqi, Shahimi and Ajluni, Qarasi, Sukari, Aswad, and Shamouti. Lebanon has many varieties like Shtawi, Souadi, Boukrati, Bouadi, and several others. Lebanese red varieties are found along the coast. Shtawi comes from the word Shitaa’ in Arabic which means winter. It ripens very late, usually in November into Christmas and it is a variety grown in Koura, Lebanon. The Sumaki originally from Syria is one of the finest tasting figs. It’s named after the Sumac spice.
In addition to their sweet flavor, vitamin-rich figs are also used in home remedies. Vitamins A, B and C, which are all found in figs, as well as high levels of minerals such as iron, potassium and calcium, help regenerate cells in the body, regulate blood circulation and treat symptoms of keratosis.
Figs soaked in water can be used to treat respiratory infections, chronic constipation, and to relieve whooping cough. Eating dried figs is thought to help the body resist cold in winter.
The white juice secreted by unripe figs was also used to curdle milk in order to turn it into white cheese before the use of rennet became widespread.
Duplicating a fig tree is pretty easy. Just cut a branch tip from the desired tree, plant it in the ground anywhere between 40 to 60 centimeters in depth at the beginning of the winter or towards the end of February before the new leaves and branches grow.
The fig tree, where the juicy flesh meets dewy, fragrant skin, bears witness to its fruit’s fragile moment of sheer perfection. As you bite into that wrinkled fig ripe from its source, sweet syrup gushing from roasted cell walls under the hot summer skies, with frail seeds crushing under your teeth, remember this has always been the taste of summer days in Lebanon.
To this Land and the beauty of its fruits…
A summer salad that I always prepare at home:
Fig, hazelnut, goat cheese, and pomegranate molasses salad
2 tbsp hazelnuts
1 tsp pomegranate molasses
2 tbsp good olive oil
1 box of goat cheese
8 ripe figs
Fig balsamic vinegar to drizzle at the end
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C Gas 4 and toast the hazelnuts for a few minutes on a baking tray until they are light brown, then chop them coarsely with a knife.
Mix all the ingredients and top with the pomegranate molasses and the olive oil.