How lucky we are to live in this region’s Mediterranean climate — because we can eat fresh, tree-ripened figs!
Folks who live outside of our culinary bubble may have never tasted a fig pulled right off the tree, and that’s a shame. The dried figs sold in stores across the country are chewy, nutty and caramelly. But a tree-ripened fig is sweet and fruity, luscious, intriguingly flavored and pure joy on the palate.
The June crop of figs coming into the stores and farmers’ markets now are what’s called the breba crop. These first-crop figs grow on last year’s wood. Later in the summer and early fall, the main crop will come. The breba crop is the sparser of the two. The breba figs are bigger, due mostly to the more abundant water that’s in the ground in spring, are less sweet and more acidic, but they are better than no figs at all. The main crop figs are smaller, sweeter and less acidic.
Whether breba or main crop, here’s how you can spot a tree-ripe fig. Unripe figs may color up but they’re not quite ripe yet. They stand out from the branch on stiff peduncles — the bit of wood that attaches the fruit to the branch. When the fig is truly tree-ripe, that peduncle softens and the fig hangs loosely from the branch. That’s the signal — and then the race is on — between the human fig aficionado and the little Argentine ants that have turned our state into a giant ant colony — to see who can harvest them first. Those buggers love figs as much as we do. Maybe more.
Figs are native to the Levant and have been cultivated for about 11,000 years, making them one of the first crops when agriculture was developed. An early farmer would certainly have loved the fact that they dry easily and store that way for months, providing energy and food during lean winters
For many people, the Black Mission variety, first planted in California at Mission San Diego in 1769, sets the standard for quality. Lovers of yellow figs praise Calimyrna figs, whose amber flesh is sweet and nutty. If you’ve driven around Fresno on Highway 99, you may have seen acres of fig trees with paper bags attached to them. The bags cover the fruits to prevent over-pollination and subsequent split fruit. It’s all an artifact of the fig’s strange fruiting cycle. While most figs don’t need pollination to produce figs, Calimyrna figs do. Of the thousands of cuttings of Turkish Smyrna figs brought to California in the 1880s, not one bore fruit. It was discovered that a tiny fig wasp must pollinate the Turkish figs, and so the wasps were imported to California and now work those paper bag fig orchards producing Calimyrnas.
A fig is not a true fruit but an inverted sac lined inside with thousands of minuscule flowers. A tiny female fig wasp lays her eggs inside the fig. When they hatch, the males and females mate, and the males help the females dig their way out of the fig through a little hole in the tip. The males then die, but the pollen-covered females fly away to find an unripe fig, crawl inside through a hole called the osteole, and lay her eggs, inadvertently pollinating its thousands of internal flowers and beginning the cycle again. Those pollinated flowers inside the sac turn to sweet jelly and produce the tree’s actual fruits, which are thousands of crunchy little seeds. The crunchy seeds give a pollinated Calimyrna fig an extra boost of nutty flavor.