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In Season: Bite into decadent Brown Turkey Figs

The first crop of Brown Turkey figs, called the breba crop, is ripe now. It will be followed in fall by the main crop, but you probably won’t find either crop in the supermarkets. That’s because tree-ripened Brown Turkey figs are supremely perishable as soon as they're picked. So keep your eye peeled for them at farmers’ markets.

They will most likely be from someone’s home orchard. Brown Turkeys are the most widely home-grown and farmsteaded fig in the world, for good reason. They have a reddish-purplish-black skin with pale green at the stem end. The soft, sweet flesh is the color of rosé wine, with light amber edible seeds within. The overall flavor of a ripe breba Brown Turkey is mild, with notes of hazelnuts and French pastries. Compared to the chewy, rich flavor of a Black Mission fig, it’s a floaty, luscious, soft, decadent dream of a fig.

These first-crop figs are each about twice the size of the Black Mission, not only because they are naturally larger, but also because the tree’s roots have had access to more of last season’s water than roots will have in the dry soils of late summer and early fall, when the main crop is more concentrated, sweeter and slightly smaller.

The pear-shaped fig is functionally a receptacle with a small hole in the end. Thousands of little flowers form on the receptacle’s inner walls. These flowers are followed by tiny drupes, or bits of sweet fig flesh each enclosing a miniscule seed. Most figs, including Brown Turkey, don’t require pollination to form fruits.

The fig is native to Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean region, where it’s been a food source for at least 11,000 years. Its cultivation has been traced back more than 4,500 years, almost to the dawn of agriculture. In fact, archaeologists say it probably was the first farmed plant. And why not? When dried, the fruits keep all year around without refrigeration. Those first farmers would have been crazy not to plant a fig in their dooryard, just as so many who live in the Mediterranean climates around the world do today, including right here in Sonoma County.

Figs came to North America with the Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century. The Black Mission variety came to California in 1769 when Franciscan missionaries established the first mission at San Diego. Originally, it was from the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain.

Despite its name, the Brown Turkey variety was originally bred in Provence, France, one of thousands of fig cultivars developed worldwide.

If you can find fresh Brown Turkeys, by far the best way to eat them is right out of hand. Figs are excellent with a little cream and sugar. They have an affinity for lavender and rosemary; can be served or cooked with orange and lemon flavors; harmonize with honey and caramel; make a great combination with peaches, pears and raspberries and marry well with Port wine.

Figs go with salty foods like prosciutto and pancetta — an Italian tradition that may hearken back to ancient Rome when Romans used figs in their savory dishes. Sweet meats like pork and duck can be cooked with fresh figs to enhance their sweetness. Use fresh figs in fruit salads with raspberries, blueberries, melon cubes and bananas all given a splash of orange juice.

This makes a fine and nourishing salad for a summer lunch or dinner. It helps if the ingredients are chilled before the salad is assembled. Wine suggestion: Chilled Falanghina from Feudi di San Gregorio of Campania, Italy. Check availability at Oliver’s or Bottle Barn. This variety may have been the ancient Roman favorite they called Falernian.

Melon, Brown Turkey Fig and Prosciutto Salad

Makes 2 servings

½ ripe cantaloupe, peeled and seeded

4 Brown Turkey figs, thinly sliced

4 ounces prosciutto

1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon basil, julienned

1 tablespoon mint, julienned

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt

Cut the cantaloupe into chunks. Arrange them on a platter with the figs and the pieces of folded prosciutto. Sprinkle the salad with the shallots, basil and mint.

Drizzle with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with a little sea salt. Serve immediately.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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