The late-summer slide into autumn is a particularly bountiful time in the Mid-Atlantic. During this brief period of plenty, you might be tempted to overload your shopping basket at the market, but no matter how full it gets, you should make room when you come across fresh figs.
Figs — unlike apples, pears or the variety of stone fruits that keep us busy in July and August—don’t arrive in bulk at your local farmers market. They’re fragile, and since they’re sweetest when at their softest and most ripe, they require a bit of babying. Fig trees are also sensitive to cold, and they don’t survive if the temperature drops too low. This results in a unique scenario: Figs can’t yet be grown on a production scale in our region, but they can grow quite happily in the city itself, shielded from cold and protected from wind by buildings. The microclimate created by close-spaced urban dwellings actually allows for fig trees to thrive as long as they have plenty of sun and their roots can spread out a bit in urban soil.
High in dietary fiber due to their seeds, figs are also high in potassium, iron, magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin K. They boast the highest concentration of calcium of any fruit, making them a great alternative to dairy.
What to look for
Select fresh figs that feel heavy for their size, and don’t be put off if they’re starting to wrinkle a bit. They don’t keep well, so make sure to use them within a few days.
For the Grower
A member of the ficus family and a relative of the mulberry, what we think of as a fig is actually a “false fruit,” a modified stem containing an amalgamation of flowers. Technically, a single fig is made up of dozens of tiny fruits called drupes, each containing a seed. They grow on smooth-skinned shrubby trees with distinctively lobed leaves whose rough, prickly texture can leave you scratching should you brush against them.
Giovanni Gagliardi, an octogenarian Philadelphian originally from Abruzzo in Central Italy, has learned to avoid itchiness by suiting up before harvesting the enormous fig tree that has taken over his South Philadelphia backyard. “When I pick them … I put [on] long sleeves, long pants, shoes … [it] looks like I go to the war.” But pick them he does, and so many remain that he and his family could never hope to eat them all. He sells the overflow, packaged by the dozen in reused egg cartons, to the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market, where he is something of a celebrity, referred to only by his first name.
Gagliardi’s figs are the product of a very well-established tree, a green variety that he calls “paradiso,” which he planted from a cutting in 1975 when he first came to the United States. He wrapped it in plastic the first winter, afraid that it would be too cold, and the little tree rotted. So Gagliardi bargained with it, “I said, ‘Come up again and I take care of you.’” Fortunately, it sent up shoots the following spring. Beyond a little hay for insulation in the first few years, he’s never again wrapped or shielded it from cold weather, though it is sheltered on the north side.
Now, it appears that the tree is actually taking care of Gagliardi. It towers over the house. “They grow that way,” he shrugs. “I don’t do nothing, I don’t bother them at all … that’s the beauty of the figs — they don’t need you to pay attention like a baby … you put them in the ground and they grow.” Though fig trees will take a few years to get established, they’re fairly low-maintenance, and in addition to their fruit, the tree’s big leaves offer lovely shade.
Farmer Tom Culton, of Culton Organics in Lancaster County, is fanatical about figs, and he has dozens of varieties that he grows with an Amish friend. “We call it our clandestine fig lab… [We’re] slowly trying to acclimate them to our climate.” Most of their dozens of varieties must be shielded in a hoop house through the winter, but in the warm weather “we hoist them onto a tobacco wagon and drag them outside.”
Unfortunately, animals also know how tasty figs are. Gagliardi estimates that birds and squirrels get at least half of the fruit. But Culton says that, aside from the animal pests, “there’s not too much that goes after them." In fact, they can be grown in our climate far more easily than other tree fruits. Culton and his partner see potential in this. “Figs are something that we can farm organically, and with the climate changing, we think it’ll be a lower-maintenance crop for us.”
In the city, figs can grow beautifully as long as they have enough soil. Though they will grow in a container, Culton cautions to make sure they a) don’t become root-bound (where the roots of the plant outgrow its container), and b) are upright and secured, as the trees can get top-heavy.
Gagliardi jokes that when he planted his tree, his goal was to lean out of the kitchen window on the second story of his house and “without [touching] with the hands, I want to eat the fig.” Thirty-eight years later, his wish has come true.
For the Cook
Fresh figs hardly need to be cooked, and Philly figs are rare delights, best eaten fresh—skins and all. They have a pulpy texture with delicate crunch from their small, round, edible seeds, and a faintly vegetal sweetness.
Their Mediterranean origins mean that, like melon, they’re a classic paired with cured meat like prosciutto or speck. In addition to being elegant on a cheese plate, they’re perfect with a creamy, bloomy rind cheese like Silver Lining by Cranberry Creek Farm, or the subtle tang of a mild chevre.
One advantage to cooking figs is that it concentrates their flavor, yielding a jammy sweetness and delicate crunch that fits perfectly between the juicy stone fruits and berries of summertime and the crisp and caramel-esque apple and pear flavors of autumn.
Sara May, Little Nonna’s Pastry Chef, who was most recently at the helm of the Franklin Fountain, developed this delicate clafoutis recipe, a French dessert somewhere between a pudding and a cake, exclusively for Grid. Sliced fresh figs, scattered on top the moment before it goes into a hot oven, dry slightly, their interiors going from noncommittal pink to sophisticated plum. Lemon zest lends brightness, and vanilla bean decadence, both tempered by the scholarly seriousness of fresh thyme. Despite its dressy appearance, this recipe is suitable for even a novice cook. The batter, mixed in a blender, needs to sit for a while before baking, and the finished dish is a delight when served next to loosely whipped local cream.
Whether you eat them whole out of their carton, or save them for a recipe like this one, you won’t be sorry that you added them to your market basket in the waning warmth of a late summer day.
Fresh Fig Clafoutis (Serves 6)
- ½ cup plus 1 tsp organic cane sugar, divided
- 1 vanilla bean
- ½ cup whole milk
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 large eggs
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
- ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp unsalted butter, melted
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 Tbsp confectioner’s sugar
- ½ pound fresh figs, sliced lengthwise into ½” slices (about one pint)
- the zest of one large lemon, finely minced (about 1 Tbsp)
- whipped cream, to serve
Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and, using the back of your knife, scrape out the seeds. Place 1/2 cup sugar, lemon zest and vanilla in a bowl. With clean hands, rub zest and vanilla beans into sugar until mixture is fragrant and thoroughly combined.
Assemble the clafoutis batter: In a stand blender, combine the sugar/lemon zest/vanilla bean mixture, whole milk, heavy cream, eggs, sea salt and thyme leaves. Pulse a few times to combine ingredients.
Add the flour gradually, pulsing between additions. Allow batter to stand at room temperature in the stand blender for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush a 9” cast iron skillet or pie tin with melted butter and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar. Give the clafoutis batter one more pulse and then pour into prepared pan. Gently scatter fig slices over the top of the batter. Bake 15 minutes, then reduce oven heat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and bake 15-25 minutes more, or until clafoutis sides are puffy and browned, and the middle of the custard is just set. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Sprinkle top with confectioner’s sugar.
Cut the cooled clafoutis into 6 slices and serve each slice with a dollop of whipped cream.
For the Pantry by Marisa McClellan
Fresh figs are one of late summer's most fleeting treats. Here's how to make them last just a little bit longer.
Don’t wash your figs until just before eating. Line a container with paper towels, place the figs in a single layer on the towels, and refrigerate.
Cut fresh figs into quarters, toss with granulated sugar (use half as much sugar as figs), and simmer over low heat until the liquid thickens. Scrape figs and syrup into a container and refrigerate.
Figs also freeze well. Place on a cookie sheet, freeze, and then double wrap them in plastic. They’ll keep at least six months.
Learn more about food preservation at foodinjars.com
An alumna of Fair Food, Philabundance and Greener Partners, Emily Teel is a food freelancer dedicated to sustainable, delicious food in Philadelphia. See more of her work at emilyteel.com.